Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why Play Daemons? Why Play Warhammer?

Why daemons? Why 40k?

Actually, the best way to frame the question is to ask where. It was the narrative setting, the place, that first lured me into the hobby.

Back when I was a graduate student in the late-1980s, I came across Games Workshop, the concept of Space Marines, and the earliest iterations of what eventually became "the grim distance of the far future." As sci-fi went it was heroic but dark. In fact, it was pretty twisted. Intrigued, I bought a few rules supplements, a few White Dwarves. I didn't know anybody who played the games. So I "played" them in my head. Mostly I just imagined the setting.

Eventually, I moved on to other things. Years passed.

Then two things occurred that drew me back. I stumbled across a store with wondrous models in the display case and lushly-terrained tables in the basement. And there I found a community of gamers who had immersed themselves in 40k. A friendly group who loved the game, the hobby, and the narrative.

Danger Planet, in Waltham! Since swept away by macroeconomic malaise.


Well I spent weeks lurking at the store, watching games, talking to experienced players, trying to figure out what army I'd play if I played...

And so I found my way toward the Ruinous Powers. Even before I bought the rulebook for the game I got the Chaos Space Marine codex. Third edition -- the Golden Age of Chaos in 40k. And when I cracked it open and began to read, I realized I'd found my bible, my calling, my creed. My fate was sealed.

I mean, c'mon. Tanks possessed by deamons? Armies that spit brimstone as well as bolterfire? Infantry that were sleek and sci-fi, but beneath, tormented souls thrashing in the grip of eternal damnation? This was the vibe that makes 40k truly distinctive, uniquely twisted. Chaos, for me, captures that ineffable essence, that amalgamation of space opera and gothic weirdness, that characterizes Warhammer at its cancerous core.

My first army was an Iron Warriors company. Which was fun to build and forgiving when it came to learning game mechanics and the rudiments of tactics. But which turned out to be a very blunt instrument. Iron Warriors, in the 3rd edition Chaos codex, were a brutal army. I felt sheepish playing it -- as if I was simply bludgeoning my way to victory.

When Games Workshop issued the Eye of Terror codex, I jumped ship, shed my iron, and started amassing a horde of the Lost and the Damned.

What a codex! What an army! Playing the LatD fundamentally shifted my perspective on Warhammer 40k. No longer was I helming an elite strikeforce of mighty warriors. Now I was MC'ing a carnival of horrors. Now I was herding a host populated by wretched creatures -- minions enslaved in the service of monstrous overlords, doomed to live horribly and die yet more horribly. What had been heroic became deeply and irredeemably horrific.

Man, I loved playing the Lost and the Damned. They were not always effective on the battlefield -- at least in my hands. But their narrative potential was boundless. That army seemed to tell me stories about the battles they were fighting, even as they went down in defeat.

And what was more, they offered unbridled modeling opportunities. Indeed, they demanded it. The core footsoldiers of the army, the mutants, GW issued no boxes or figures for. They had to be converted. And I found, as I worked up my early batches, that I loved doing so. I'd never painted miniatures before playing Warhammer, never been much into modeling, even as a boy. But now, in a blossoming second childhood that was taking me entirely by surprise, I found I loved pulling out piles of bits, working them together, seeing what I could cook up in my mad scientist lair. The alchemy of it all overtook me.

Another *sigh*

For GW, unaccountably, shut down the freak show. Specifically, the company first barred the LatD from legal tournament play, then ignored it in subsequent interlocking codexes (codeci?), rendering the army unplayable.

I tried adapting, tried assembling a new Chaos Space Marine army, this one a coven of Word Bearers. But the dark magic, the mad science, wasn't there. GW's new CSM codex had stripped the traitor legions of nearly all of their distinctive menace. Something vital had bled from the fun. I actually came close to leaving the hobby, at that low point. An army and a set of stories I'd crafted lovingly had been marooned, and I couldn't find another story or set of stories in the 40k setting that called to me in quite the same way.

Ah, but the Ruinous Powers were not done with me yet. For then the Daemons appeared.

I initially bought the Daemon codex mostly to read the "fluff" -- the narrative background and mini-stories inside. As I was reading, though, I began picturing the minions of my Lost and the Damned army, trapped on daemon worlds, trying to survive the insanity.

And then it occured to me: I could play my Lost and the Damned using the Daemon Codex rules. The new codex game me a legal army composition. And what was more, I realized as I began playing games that the rules for this particular army created a style of play that suited my sense of how I wanted my mutants and monsters to play.

The more I thought about it the wider and wilder and weirder the idea grew. My daemons would be daemonic. They would also be tortured human souls -- the haunted remnants of an Imperial Guard regiment that had been claimed and corrupted by Chaos. The army would be a haunted one, ripped apart and rendered into vessels of possession, bent to the service of the Ruinous Powers. The concept ignited all kinds of narrative possibilities. Twisted and tortured new modeling opportunities beckoned.

Games began telling me stories again.

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