Hydras and Wolves
People ask me, at least a dozen times a week, what armies I play. It’s one of the Top Ten questions I get, along with “When will you do more about Sevatar?” and “When is Betrayer released?”
I’ll answer those two now, so I have something to link to.
1. I don’t know. Soon by my standards, but not soon by publishing (or the public’s) standards. The second half of 2013 will likely be dedicated to writing my next Horus Heresy novel, but because of timelines and schedules, it’s looking to be more likely it won’t be a Night Lords novel. The Night Lords have had a lot written about them now, and there’s a risk of sustained violence to dead horses being done. They’ve been in several short stories and novellas, and have had more said about their primarch’s backstory in the series than anyone else, in Shadows of Treachery. So they’re not in any urgent need of attention. Since the gang have a habit of saying what their next book(s) are gonna be even a bajillion years ahead of schedule, I’ll throw you a bone in the same way. My next Horus Heresy novel is likely to be called The Master of Mankind. No points for guessing what that’ll be about. Even the title gives me goosebumps.
Don’t ask me if the Emperor is going to be a point-of-view character. I’m not an idiot.
2. Betrayer is released very, very soon. There’s a new system for announcements and preorders and stuff for the hardbacks… I won’t go into it, it’s not my end of the process, really. I’m just a hired gun, not a scheduling servitor. Suffice to say, we’re talking a handful of days, so look to the skies.
But, yeah. “What armies do you play?” is right up there.
I can answer that, but it requires some context.
I paint really, really slowly. That’s partly why I played Necromunda and Gorkamorka so much – 11 House Cawdor gangers was within my sphere of realistic ability, but my 4,000 points of High Elves just… weren’t. For a start, Christ, did I ever hate painting cavalry. A Bretonnian army would slaughter me. I’ve always been more of a Warhammer player than a 40K one (something about the aesthetics of the Fantasy armies has always clanged all my bells) but they were never painted. At best, one fellow in each regiment would get a test scheme, and I’d declare “Sure, I like that, I’ll do the rest at some point.”
At Some Point never came. I had 2 painted Necromunda gangs back in the day (Cawdor & Delaque), but only 1 painted High Elf model in a 4,000 point army, and 3 painted Wood Elves in a 2,000 point army. Incidentally, there’s not a single Fantasy army I don’t love. Beastmen, Wood Elves, High Elves, Dwarfs, Lizardmen, Bretonnia and the Empire just about beat the others, but I love them all. I just dread painting them, even while I know it’s an essential part of the process to make an army feel like it’s “yours”.
Hobby-wise, I was always more interested in the campaign’s narrative – the pre-game stories, the battle itself, and the post-game fiction – as well as kitbashing with my attempts at basic converting. Building models? Sure. Army lists? Yeah, insofar as every unit needed a name, a backstory, a reason to be there, a mission/flavour/grudge/rivalry/debt/whatever that coloured their personality and outlook. I had a unit of Glade Guard with banners made from dwarf shields lashed together with vines, and a Wardancer unit with beastmen skulls on the bases, and red tattoos instead of blue, to represent the months they left Athel Loren in pursuit of a particular bray-shaman they had a blood-oath to slay. Half the Wardancer troupe – the veterans who survived that hunt – wear red tattoos to show they fulfilled their oath, while the newer members, who weren’t part of the troupe at the time, still have blue-green tattoos.
Stuff like that. I’d write it out, or convert it, then never get around to painting it.
I’ve never played any tabletop wargame without it being part of a wider narrative, because that’s just how I enjoy playing them. Pick-up games with strangers and tournaments hold absolutely no interest – no vitality – to me. I get that they rock for other people, but for me the hobby has always been about long campaigns with a bunch of friends, and the stories that rise from those games. The unlucky moments that shape a character, regiment, or battle make for amazing moments of personal history attached to that regiment. The one man that stands up to the dragon. The one cavalry charge that turns the tide. The thirty soldiers locked against another regiment for the whole battle, in the thickest, most savage fighting. The grudges from losing territory, and the exaltation of stealing it back. Me rolling 5 “Slag” territories in Necromunda, making my gang’s turf the most useless, income-less wasteland of industrial run-off imaginable, and the strangely fierce pride that comes from defending glorious, worthless “Slaghaven”.
I play for that, with armies me and my friends have raised and infused with whatever creativity we could cobble together. And yet, despite that attitude of needing it all to be intimate and intensely personal, the painting has never really mattered that much. In hobby terms, the actual painting never fired my guns, so to speak. I was a slow painter as a kid; slow as a teenager; and even slower now. It’s the one step of the hobby I look at with dread. I’m not even that bad, just slow and inexperienced. When I bother to do a model, they’re at least neat, even if not visually inspiring.
But that’s changing. Katie paints now. Her 40K army is more painted than mine. We have a campaign now, and something to focus on. The painting will come.
Choosing a 40K army in recent years has been a pretty frustrating deal. That’s partly because of my own insecurities, and partly because… Okay, it’s entirely my own insecurities. But one of the things I loathe most in any fandom is the accusation of bias. That somehow because Author X likes Faction Y, that’s why Event Z happens in their novels. Or, vice versa, because they hate Faction A, that’s why Faction A loses to Faction B. I hate that because it’s ignorant, and it implies a staggering (and stupid) lack of integrity. Notice I don’t say professionalism. I’m not professional. I’m tactless and naive and overly emotional. But I have integrity about my work. The Blood Angels don’t die at the end of Soul Hunter because I hate the Blood Angels. The Blood Angels die at the end of Soul Hunter because the fight’s not in their favour, and the Night Lords have home court advantage. I love the Blood Angels, as it happens. I’ve refrained from admitting it in the past, but I’m getting braver about it these days, especially in all my interviews and panels where I flat-out admit they’re the one Heresy Legion I’d love to write about above any other. Ask any of the HH team, and you’ll find half of them probably say the same thing.
The Blood Angels are my favourite Legion, but it’s relative, because – just like ice cream – I love pretty much every flavour of ice cream there is. I like Raspberry Ripple slightly more than the others, but it’s all relative. Similarly, the Orks don’t die in Helsreach because I hate the Orks, and the Ultramarines don’t suffer in Betrayer because I hate the Ultramarines. Again, I love the Ultramarines. Just because you like something doesn’t mean they have to win all the time. If they did, well, that’s pretty fucking childish, if you’ll excuse the blunt honesty. That’s not a story. That’s masturbation.
There’s only one Heresy-era Legion I don’t like as much as the others, and since I’ll never write about them, it doesn’t matter at all. I’m not a biased author, and nothing boils my piss more than getting accused of it. It’s such a petty, meaningless, knee-jerk bullshit internet comment that sounds great as an insult because it requires no evidence, and is intimately insulting, attacking personal opinion and professional integrity all at once. That makes it juicy. That makes it stick.
But I’ve talked about this before. It’s the art of walking the line between fan service (making the novel’s chosen faction unrealistically The Best to please its fans), and unfair bias (making a faction look terrible because the author hates them). The former is a pretty popular trope in tie-in fiction, and is a good way to grab many solid reviews and hugely positive fan feedback, even if it’s sort of lame. The latter is something I’m willing to bet almost never happens in real life.
The key is to go between those extremes. Take something you like and understand, and make it realistic, compelling, and interesting. Not better. Just in-depth. If they win, they need realistic reasons why. If they lose, they need realistic reasons why for that, too. In this regard, I’m always kinda amazed when people want me to write about their favourite faction, because my immediate answer is always the same: “You know if I do it, they’ll probably lose, right?”
Which is fair enough. The Grey Knights and Space Wolves come to a political, tradition-bound deadlock in The Emperor’s Gift – both sides have wins and losses, and while both sides “lose”, no one looks stupid or unrealistic. It’s a clash of ideologies in a galaxy-spanning tyrannical dictatorship, not a game of who has the bigger dick. The Grey Knights suffer embarrassing losses once in a while, and the Wolves have to compromise on their principles. It evens out, come the last day. In the Night Lords Trilogy, not only was it always supposed to be a tale about the deterioration of 10th company, their best victories always come from either huge sacrifices, or just running away like the cowards they are. In The First Heretic, I told the tale of the one primarch who hadn’t found his place, and didn’t live up to his brothers’ legacies at that point in time. It was about Lorgar’s first steps (and his Legion’s) to finding themselves by the Heresy’s end, and becoming their 40K incarnations. Helsreach has every main character except Grimaldus dying to a man (and woman), and isn’t the tale of the badass, invulnerable Codex character: it’s the story of how he becomes that character, through doubt and the self-discovery that leads from abandonment. Being denied the death he felt he’d earned made him feel his own Chapter held no value of his deeds, partly because of his own arrogance in the midst of his doubt. He also had to come to terms with his mentor’s primary lesson not being as universally true as he’d thought, which altered his worldview considerably, making him into the Codex character we’re all familiar with. He grew as a character, but the Black Templars lost, and lost hard. That’s what I mean. Me writing a book about a faction you like will hopefully bring some light and depth and realism to it, but if you’re after an actual overwhelming victory, you may wanna ask one of the other folks putting fingers to keys under the watchful eye of Black Library.
You can probably see why I get so riled up by accusations of author bias. And I’m lucky: to be honest I very rarely get any of those accusations, but I see it in half a dozen fandoms with insane frequency. It gives me The Fear. So I’ve resisted playing anything I write about, which has clashed with also not playing anything I can’t paint, shrinking the window of opportunity enough that it became not playing 40K at all. Complicated or cool colour schemes are usually beyond me, and I’ve avoided playing anything I write because I didn’t want idiotic accusations like “He only made the Night Lords awesome because they’re his army.”
Which is another thing I don’t understand. Just liking one army above all others. I can understand collecting one above all others, because money and time is finite. But my 40K Chaos Marine army doesn’t mean I love Chaos Marines more than any other faction. (Again, between you and me, my favourite 40K faction is Dark Eldar, and has been since they first showed up years ago with the vaguest allusions to Space Fleet, that game of old). But I kind of love… all of it. That’s the point. That’s why I work in the setting. Different parts of it appeal to different parts of my skulljunk. I have a 40K Chaos Marine army because I have some good ideas for them, and I love the lore and the models are easy to kitbash. Not because all other races suck. Not because I like Chaos best.
Anyway! There’s been a lot of interest in my 40K dealings lately, and I promised some answers.
Check back tomorrow, and I’ll spill the beans on my Heresy army (with its Tale of Four Gamers project), as well as the details of my 40K army (and its pretty massive campaign in the opening stages this weekend, as it happens). Spoilers: it’s the Hydras and the Wolves. Details to come.
This all times quite nicely with both projects, which I’ll be (infrequently…) blogging about a bit in the future (campaign fluff, army stories, progress pics, gaming weekend write-ups, etc.)
Good luck with Betrayer. Hope you like it.