Sunday, 13 August 2017

Delving the Dark Hereticus

The new Chaos Space Marines book gives Chaos players a lot to chew on (and argue about because this is 40k we're dealing with here). I thought that before I got back to work on the sequel to my novel (subtle plug there) I'd have a look at the expanded Dark Hereticus Discipline and deal with what seems to me to be a rather sizeable elephant in the room. I'm going to give each power a 'score' out of 10 just for the sake of trying to rank them.

Infernal Gaze 
So this is the Smite you cast when you've already cast Smite. It's not hard to get off at a casting value of 5, is more precise in that you can target anything visible within 18", but since you have to roll 4+ on three dice to do any damage it might not do anything at all. 5/10

Death Hex
The first new spell to have a bit of 'oooh' factor, Death Hex strips Invulnerable saves from a target within 12". That's good, especially if faced by Hammernators or some git with the Armour Indomitus, but it has a casting value of 8, making it tricky to cast when you need it. Given that most offensive powers do Mortal Wounds anyway, it's perhaps not as good as it appears. 7/10

Gift of Chaos
Hello Nurse! This one is a bit situational, since you have to beat the target's Toughness on 1D6 so it's not one to bring out against Death Guard, but it does D3+3 Mortal Wounds if you can land it for an achievable 6 WC with the bonus of turning a CHARACTER killed by it into a Spawn. A wrinkle here is that it specifically targets a single model, so it would appear that the damage done does not spread to other members of the unit despite being Mortal Wounds. The range is also a bit short at 6", but even so a power that can practically one-shot a lot of characters is worthy of consideration. 8/10

Unchanged from the Index and still one of the most useful powers in the game. +1 To Hit for all rolls until your next Psychic Phase is huge, especially on a unit like Terminators who can both shoot and fight well. Barring other modifiers you can safely Overcharge plasma weapons and you'll be hitting on 2+. A Warp Charge cost of 7 is not too hard to make and the range is a massive 18". 10/10

Diabolic Strength
+2 S, +1 A on a model with a 12" range for WC 6. It's not bad, on something like a Daemon Prince it might even mean the difference between wrecking a Baneblade ot scrabbling at its hull like a puppy trying to get out of the house, but lacklustre overall compared to some of the other tricks. 6/10, mostly because Chaos have quite a few big, angry things to cast it on. (On a Double-Taloned Daemon Prince of Slaanesh with the Elixir, you're looking at 9 Attacks at Strength 10, -2 AP, 2 Damage, enough to cripple a Knight)

Make a unit within 3" move again for a measly 6 WC. The peanut butter to Prescience's jelly, or the fish-fingers to its custard, whatever floats your boat. This power has so many uses, from getting first turn charges to getting deep-strikers into melta range that I could (and sort of did) write a whole post just about it. Only the short range lets it down a tiny bit, meaning the caster might end up exposed after the target moves. 9/10

Tzeentch: Weaver of Fates
+1 to Invulnerable saves with a nice 18" range and a lowish cost of 6. Since it gives models with no Invulnerable a 5++, this is a very good and versatile power, equally good for making a horde of Cultists take longer to thin out or making Rubricae harder to shift. A common theme with all three Mark-specific powers is that they work on everything with the mark, even Vehicles, so 5++ Land Raiders or 4++ Daemon Engines are possible. 8/10

Nurgle: Miasma of Pestilence
-1 To Hit against a Marked unit within 18" for everything. Great, bordering on dirty. Stacks with the Alpha Legion trait or the Night Lords 'In Midnight Clad' stratagem, making firing Plasma on overcharge borderline suicidal (remember you re-roll before modifiers, so a BS 3+ model firing on Overcharge could roll a 3, not be allowed a re-roll because it 'hit', then take the -2 from the modifiers and die.) 9/10

Slaanesh: Delightful Agonies
Very similar to other two, with the same range and WC cost, but this time giving a 5+ FNP. How this makes sense on a tank I'm not sure, but it apparently does. This one is always useful, varying in how it compares to the other two Mark buffs based on what the attack is and how good a save the target already has. 8/10

The Elephant in the Room
So here it is- the Hereticus Discipline is really good- really, really good. The big problem comes when trying to pick the powers, because with Sorcerers only getting two + Smite and Daemon Princes only getting one taking anything other than Warptime and Prescience is very hard to justify. It feels a bit like the situation with the old Tyranid codex where a book full of perfectly decent options just felt like it was Winged Hive Tyrants And Some Rubbish because they were just so good. The Mark-Specific buffs are good and worth taking, especially Miasma, but I can guarantee from experience that if you do, you'll miss whichever of the Big Two you don't take terribly. There is, however, a helpful little solution to this problem tucked into the book.

Getting Familiar
For measly 1CP, the 'Chaos Familiar' Stratagem is easy to overlook, especially since the old version of the Familiar, which gave casting re-rolls, is gone and sorely missed. But this little lad has a very useful trick, allowing a Psyker to swap one of his powers for any other power from the Hereticus discipline. Being able to ditch Miasma for Warptime at a critical moment, or suddenly pulling Death Hex, Gift of Chaos or Diabolic Strength out of your back pocket at the right moment is a real potential game-winner. An interesting question, which is one of those things that feels sort of obviously right and yet maybe unintentional at the same time is that there's nothing to say you can't use this Stratagem to get rid of Smite. You certainly couldn't use it again to get it back, since it's not a Hereticus power, and Smite is still a very handy tool, but the option to do this seems to be there.

With their new Codex, Chaos Space Marines got distinctly tricksy. (Lets take a moment to ponder what shenanigans the Aeldari are going to be pulling once they get a new book) Dark Hereticus is such a good Discipline that even the most devout Khorne worshipper might consider working a Sorcerer or two into their Warband somewhere. It remains to be seen whether inventive strategies using some of the lesser powers will develop, but even if they don't, there's plenty of scope for this powerful Discipline to wreak havok.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The humble Chaos Cultist, and his part in your enemy's ruin

Or 'her part'. Sorry ladies!
With the new Chaos Codex bearing down on us there's been a lot of discussion about the usefulness of morale-affecting abilities, in particular the Word Bearers ability to re-roll failed tests. Combined with a Dark Apostle, they can have Leadership 9 Cultist units. The reaction from players has been distinctly mixed, from 'Ew, Cultists?' (Pro-tip: If you don't want to use masses of Cultists, maybe don't play the Legion that practically invented the Imperial Cult) to odd mathematical gymnastics that claim that the re-roll doesn't do anything particularly useful.

It's a little ironic that when a Legion finally manages to get ATSKNF after years of complaining that they don't have it, suddenly apparently nobody wants it. But I digress.

Now we all know that if you're playing an MSU force, Morale is very much less of an issue in 8th Edition. If there's only five of you and you're LD 7, by the time you take enough damage to be in danger of failing a Morale test you're practically all dead anyway. But what I think people aren't giving due consideration to is the fact that in 8th Edition in particular, Cultists are really, really useful. They're one of the cheapest ways any Faction can fill the three Troop slots needed to fill out a Battalion, and whilst nobody is going to accuse them of being the most deadly troops in the galaxy with the various buffs and re-rolls available to Chaos they can be surprisingly effective.

It's worth re-stating how useful filling Troops slots with Cultists can be. For one thing they get the Despoilers of the Galaxy rule, the new version of Objective Secured with all the utility that entails, but most importantly the Battalion (or even Brigade, if you really want to push it) detachment is in reach, giving you +3 or more Command Points. These were very useful just with the Indexes, but with a full Codex they become significantly more important. The thing which is increasingly becoming clear is that most of the benefits that used to come with Formations now come as Stratagems, so a healthy pool of CP greatly increases the flexibility of your army. World Eaters, for example, have the very powerful Fury of Khorne to allow a unit to fight again- potentially for the third time if it's a unit of Berserkers- but it costs a full 3 points. Not only will filling out a Battalion get you the points to use it, but it means you can have a few units of cheap autogun-toting idiots holding the objective so all those Berserkers can get on with running at the enemy with chain-axes.

Even the mighty Land Raider can gain a decent benefit from Cultists. Though the tank has got a lot more powerful in 8th, (particularly the Chaos variety since it gained POTMS)  its Achilles Heel is getting assaulted by quick, cheap units like suicidal Rhinos and Trukks which stop it shooting. Well, Cultists not only give you a cheap bubble-wrap option but you can even load a smaller unit of them into the thing and take them with you. Even if you misjudge it and still get charged, you can hop the Cultists out, retreat the tank, and charge the Cultists in, at least preventing the Rhino from doing it again next turn.

Lets finish by really looking at just how nasty we can make some Cultists. We need to remember that, chaff unit though they are, Cultists still get the HERETIC ASTARTES, <MARK OF CHAOS> and <LEGION> keywords, so as well as that Morale re-roll we started talking about we can get always-strikes-first Cultists, Cultists with additional attacks, and more. It's probably easiest to make them into an assault horde, with a Dark Apostle keeping them in the fight and dishing out melee Hit re-rolls with Dark Zealotry and an Exalted Champion giving them re-rolls to Wound. On a 20 strong unit that cost 5 Power, that's some force multiplication. If there's a Sorcerer about, Prescience will give them +1 To Hit into the bargain. And whilst Chaos doesn't have Commissars to boost the staying power of Cultists to Conscript-like levels of irritating, the Word Bearers have a potentially even more infuriating trick, with Tide of Traitors (for a measly 2CP)  allowing them to remove that one survivor stuck in melee with an enemy unit (who maybe only stuck around because of that Ld 9 and morale re-roll) and replace him, along with his full twenty-strong unit, on your opponent's board edge in rapid-fire range of his tender bits.

Of course, you don't have to take Cultists. There's plenty of perfectly good army builds that don't need them. But there are plenty of really dirty jobs to do on the 40k battlefield, and like Grots and Conscripts, Cultists are one of the best units to saddle with doing them.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Plasma and modifiers- the Halo Paradigm

The Halo Paradigm, besides being a fantastic name for a band, is also the phrase I use for something that comes to mind when looking at the way 8th Edition handles Plasma weapons. One of the things that irritated me about Plasma since the earliest days of the Gets Hot rule was the way that twin-linking the weapon caused you to be less likely to overheat. So because you were firing more shots, you were less likely to get hot? Odd.

Now, some people don't like the fact that in 8th Edition, modifiers to hit alter how likely plasma weapons are to overheat. For example, use Presience to get +1 to hit, and barring other modifiers you can Overcharge to your hearts content. Conversely, negative modifiers, such as the recently-revealed Night Lords stratagem, make Overcharging much more dangerous.

I actually think this is a very sensible rule, and to illustrate why we need only look at the Chief there. I'll admit at this point that unless my memory plays tricks on me the last Halo I played was Halo 3, so this may not be true of the later games, but Covenant plasma weapons in Halo, much like 40k ones, can overheat with continuous fire. This doesn't (as far as I remember) cause actual damage to the firer, but it does stop the gun firing for a while and makes the player wave it about trying to cool it down.

Here's the thing- if presented with two targets, one of which is just standing there waiting to be shot and the other of which is dodging about like a demented flea (or a caffeine-powered 14-year-old), which one do you think is most likely to cause your gun to overheat as you shoot at it? Faced with an elusive target, the reaction of all but the most ninja-skilled player is to fire more shots in the attempt to hit it, which obviously increases the chance of an overheat.

Now, whether 40k plasma weapons overheat in the same manner, building up heat with sustained fire, or whether even a single shot on Overcharge runs the risk of overheat is largely unknown. We have to remember that with most 40k weapons, a single shot actually represents a burst of fire- the average Space Marine doesn't get through a five turn game and only fire ten rounds. Whichever way the overheating works, though, it's reasonable to assume that a firer who is distracted or challenged by the sort of situations that incur a To Hit penalty would be more vulnerable to overheating, either because they fail to notice the warning signs whilst concentrating on their aim or because they simply fire one shot too many and run out of luck. This also makes abilities that let the firer re-roll due to the presence of an officer even more evocative, as we can imagine them warning a trooper to hold fire for a moment.

So overall, this is an 8th Edition wrinkle that I very much like. Now all we need to do is get GW to realise that a Land Raider being wrecked because a pintle-mounted combi-plasma overheats is plain daft...

8th Edition- An unexpected benefit

This is one of those things that should have been immediately obvious to me, but didn't really strike me until I happened to glance at the model above on the shelf just now. This is Violator, a converted Land Raider that I use with my Emperor's Children 63rd Company army. As you can see, it's pretty extensively converted to mount Sonic weapons amongst other things. (More information on the model can be found here on my Deviantart page.)

Of course, it's well known that one of the things Emperor's Children players won't shut up about is wanting to stick Sonic weapons on everything. It doesn't feel like an unreasonable idea that units like Terminators or vehicles like the Land Raider or Predator might be altered by the Legion to use their signature weapon, but for whatever reason it's not something GW has shown any real interest in doing. The advent of 8th Edition, however, gives us a bit of a 'back door' approach to the issue.

Now it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that the Power system allows 'homebrew' units with unusual weapon fits since the much less accurate scale absorbs such fairly minor changes quite easily. So for example if we simply say Violator is a standard Chaos Land Raider that has replaced the twin Lascannons with twin Blastmasters and the twin Heavy Bolter with a Sonic Blaster and a Doomsiren, that's unlikely to cause the Power of  the tank to be massively out of whack, especially if we forbid it from taking a Havok Launcher or Combi-Weapon. The really nice thing, though, is that we can even use the weapon charts in the back of the Codex/ Index to come up with an exact Matched Play points value for the tank, something that hasn't been available to model builders since the old Rogue Trader days. (I'm not going to do it here, since we all know how GW feels about people posting their points values)

Let's look at another example, Honour of Skalathrax. (DA link)

As with Violator, I usually run this tank as a stock Chaos Land Raider, but we could easily class the two long-barrelled Autocannons held by the door gunners as Hades Autocannons, which a quick look at the points tells us actually work out a little cheaper than the twin Lascannons would. The single front Heavy Bolter gunner poses a little more of a problem since its usually a twin one, but we could simply count it as a twin and assume that the Berserker gunner is particularly enthusiastic. Alternatively we could keep it as a single weapon, add up the points, and divide by 20 to see if the Power of the tank should be a point lower.

It's not hard to see how we could take this idea further and make our Sonic Terminators, for example, but there are potential pitfalls. If a weapon is the default for a particular unit, and that unit is the only one in the army to have access to it, then the points value tends to be listed as 0- an example in the Chaos army list is the Demolisher Cannon which is only ever found on a Vindicator. Obviously if we were going to make a Demolisher-armed Land Raider model we couldn't get away with that. We could use the points value for a Demolisher from the Astra Militarum list, but even this is not an ideal solution since they pay less points for ranged weapons due to their typically lower BS. (See the points cost of a Lascannon in both lists, for example)

This does also illustrate that even points values are limited in their usefulness as a balancing factor once you start tinkering with units. For example, we might decide to make a Renegade Chapter and use vehicles like Land Speeders and Land Raider Crusaders alongside our Chaos infantry and change the relevant Keywords to make them fit in better, but doing something like this also effects which buffs (and debuffs) work on them, potentially altering the balance of the units in odd ways. To take a more extreme and obvious example, if we decided to make a heavily armoured Ork Prophet and use him as a Terminator Chaplain but with Ork keywords (a model which part of me now really wants to build) his Litanies of Hate would then start buffing 30-strong Boyz Mobz which would throw all sorts of things out of whack.

 Of course one of the beauties of 40k in general is that even something like that isn't out of the question so long as both players are happy with it. Whatever crazy army list or scenario someone wants to play is absolutely fine so long as everyone involved in the game agrees it is, even if the CEO of Games Workshop turns up and tells you you're doing it wrong. But hopefully this piece will inspire someone to maybe let a couple of counts-as conversions be what they were always meant to be at last.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

In Print

Any excuse to use this again!

As you might know if you ever look on this blog, I'm writing a series of novels, the first of which, The Wake of Manadar, is now available in print like a proper grown-up book as well as the new-fangled eBook version. You can find it, should you be so inclined, at the link in this text or by clicking the ad in the top right of the blog. It's not incredibly cheap, but it's a fat book that should pass more than one evening and double as an emergency defensive weapon in a pinch.

This has been quite a long, often frustrating, journey so far and it's one that's hopefully still beginning. I'm well underway on the second book and believe me I'll be making some noise about it when it's done!

A few observations- firstly, whilst I remain unconvinced that it's worth spending the frankly quite mad amounts of money I've seen quoted for an editor when self-publishing (£4000?) it's certainly well worth commissioning an artist to do your cover. I originally knocked up a better-than-terrible one myself but eventually commissioned the very talented Sean Harrington, whose rates are very reasonable and who didn't get wrapped up in minutiae over rights. Not using an editor does mean, however, that you're going to have to proof-read your work a lot- and I mean a lot. One author I talked to recently recommended having a text-to-speech tool read the book back to you, which is something I'm going to have to try.

Anyway, I'd like to thank everyone who's supported me so far and anyone who buys the thing, and should you happen to run into me carrying a copy I'll be happy to sign it.. once my signature recovers from those infernal 'touch-sensitive' pads every delivery driver seems to carry these days. I'm working on it!

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Finding new battlefields

This isn't an especially 40k-related post despite the title, but it touches on it a bit.

Recently it has been announced that the creators of Game of Thrones are working on a new series called 'Confederate' which is set in an alternate reality where slavery is still legal. They say it details the events leading up to a Third American Civil War, in an America where the southern states successfully ceded from the Union. The BBC has a piece on the reaction to this announcement and the almost inevitable backlash.

Now here's the first thing, and it's the thing that most directly relates to 40k too if you like- just because a writer or other creator chooses to set their story in a particular world doesn't mean that they think that world is a good place to be. We've all read the occasional obnoxious chin-stroking think-piece by a hack journalist desperate for some clicks who suddenly comes to the universe-shattering conclusion that the Imperium is a Fascist dictatorship and therefore assumes that anyone who plays 40k must be a KKK member or jackbooted wannabe blackshirt. The point of a setting is that it's just that- a setting, a stage, a place you can tell your story, and often the worse things are in that setting, the more story hooks are lying around.

The converse is also true- there are some stories where a world that is obviously meant to be 'better' than ours comes under threat. When the writers of Star Trek have the Borg turn up and assimilate an entire Federation planet, or the Cylons wipe the Twelve Colonies out of existence, the writers aren't saying this is a great thing to have happened- they're saying it's an interesting story. Big, crucial, difference. All but the most trivial (or very, very weird) stories need some form of conflict or crisis to drive the narrative, and that means that something good will be threatened, or something bad will need to be challenged.

There's a second, more insidious argument being deployed by the critics of 'Confederate' though, and it's the one which, as an aspiring writer, I find most chilling. Several people (check that BBC article for examples, I'm not linking them) have complained that 'two white guys' can't tell a story about slavery because they aren't black. Well excuse the hell out of me, but as a white male I'm going to write stories about who and whatever I damn well please. In fact, there's a cute little Catch-22 waiting for us here- for some time now, people have been complaining that there aren't enough strong female characters in big Hollywood movies, or enough black characters, or enough of whatever particular group you'd care to mention. But by the previous rule- that you have to be member of a particular group before you're qualified to write stories about it- that means all those white male screenwriters or novelists aren't allowed to write those stories. And of course if you're a white woman, you can't write about black women. If you're a black man, you can't write about black women. And so on and so on. "Only a Ginger..."

Of course I'm applying reductio ad absurdum here. After all, if we applied this 'rule' that strictly no one person could ever write a book at all unless it was set in a very odd society indeed. (and of course such a book would immediately be open to flak for 'lack of diversity') But the simple fact is that this argument is absurd. My own novel, The Wake of Manadar, features plenty of strong female characters and I was fully aware when writing it that I wasn't female, which is why I got women to read it and call me out on anything that wasn't quite right. I'm sure most other authors do the same thing, even if it's just checking with their partner or their editor. The idea that a major TV series on HBO might get all the way into full production without plenty of input and feedback from all manner of diverse people is patently daft. And yet, in the increasingly angry, judgmental, holier-than-thou world we seem to be living in, some people see fit to criticize a creative work based solely on the premise and the race of the people behind it.

There's a word for that. It begins with an 'R'.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Open War!

Firstly a quick apology for the lack of recent posts. Our family business recently took a direct hit from lightning and it blew up all sorts of kit, including our Internet, so things have been a little chaotic recently. Mostly sorted now though.

Anyway, though there have been various interesting looking things appearing recently, like the slug-like Nurgle Plaguecrawler and all those scary-looking new Primaris Marines, the thing I've been most taken with is the new Open War cards. I think these are one of the most interesting things to happen to 40k since Maelstrom Missions, and yes, I am counting 8th Ed in general in there.

Simply put, the Open War cards increase the number of potential 40k scenarios to 1,728. That's not a typo, and it assumes two armies of equal Power. Not only that- and this is something I really appreciate as someone who lugs his armies around on buses- it means that all you need to play rules-wise is the core game rules and the Open War deck.

Where do I get that big number from? Well, there are 12 Objective cards, which tell you what you're trying to do to win, 12 Deployment cards which define the deployment setup (no shocks so far, I know) and 12 Twist cards that alter the game, sometimes quite dramatically. So that gives us 12x 12x 12 potential scenarios. Some of these can be pretty major- several of the Deployments have points or even entire borders where the two players deployment zones touch, meaning you could start the game with armies 3" apart, for example. One army could be surrounded in the middle of the table, or split between up to four zones.

The Twists take this further and really shake things up. There's one that forces a more 7th Edition style of deployment, where one player sets up first and gets the first turn if they aren't seized on, and others that cause troops to heal, speed up or slow Movement, impair shooting, etc. Combine that with objectives that can range from Power-based Kill Points to sudden death victories for controlling several Objectives at once, and it becomes a real challenge to successfully play to the scenario.

I've not talked about the Ruse and Sudden Death cards yet, because since they only come into play with unbalanced forces I think they're less likely to be used, but they're still quite interesting. A player who has less Power then their opponent gets a Ruse, and these are usually fairly minor, like a redeployment, a bonus to certain actions, or ignoring Morale. Sudden Death cards are much juicier, and take effect if one player has half or less their opponent's Power. Building on an idea from Age of Sigmar, they introduce a secret win condition for the underdog player which will win them the game immediately if they achieve it. Since they vary from killing the most powerful enemy unit to driving the enemy out of a specific board zone, in such a game the player with the more powerful force is going to be pretty nervous to say the least, and the underdog will have some interesting options as far as bluff and double bluff goes.

"Oh please don't go over there and take my Objective, B'rer Fox" [Wins next turn on Drive Them Out card]
It's fair to say that Open War probably won't find a home in competitive tournaments- certain combinations can make things very tough on one player or the other. For example, I played a couple of games with them at the weekend and in the first my Tyranid-playing opponent was unfortunate that we drew the Kingslayer objective card, which means you have to destroy more Power than your opponent and Warlords count double. Since his Warlord was the Power 15 Swarmlord who was on his own due to the point level and I was playing Dark Eldar with splinter and Dark Lances, he was some 30 Power down very quickly and would have been nowhere near parity even if he'd killed my Power 7 Lelith. Overall, though, I think the fact that they force you to deal with situations outside of the norm makes the cards interesting and a good tactical challenge.

Are they perfect? No, and I think the most obvious silly thing is the card backs. For example:

As you can see, the backs of the various types of card are clearly different, but not all that different. Each type of card has a moody greeny-grey grim-dark face on it, it's just a slightly different moody greeny-grey grim-dark face. Since the cards are printed in full colour, I'd have liked to have seen each type of card with a different coloured back to make sorting them into their respective piles nice and simple. But that's a minor gripe, and one which shouldn't dissuade you from trying them out. I certainly plan to get plenty of mileage out of mine.