Wednesday, 24 August 2022

Start Again


It is one of the deepest curiosities of this blog that it does not, in fact, fully cover my main two sets of little metal figures. 

It's in the timing of course. When this blog first tore its way screaming into this universe, fresh blood dripping from its nubile form as it sucked in gaspfulls of icy air into its pulsing lungs and grasped a sword before any sustenance, it was the end of 2013. As explored before since then, I had been painting models for a long time by then, and the history of Millitant's adventures in little metal worlds stretches back long past that point. But most notably, being first started at the end of 2013 means that the entire start of my main army for Warhammer was completely overlooked on here. 

The time has come to correct that mistake. 

There's something in the air now. Something set in motion that shall rule the fate of many. The board is set and the pieces are already in motion. A new concept has begun living rent free in my brain, a vision of a grand sprawling epic that might very well one day soon sweep the internet (or at least the Warhammer part of the internet) by storm. For now it is a secret that only blogs can tell, because it involves an eternity of planning, admin work and writing reams and reams of silly backstory, plus a number of technologies I do not yet possess. 

And the first step on that long road is to know thyself, which means making sense of my own Warhammer armies. And that in turn means that I must finally begin the long, painful, thankless task of sifting through the backstory and units of my Wood Elf army, and reforging it anew. 

In contrast to my Tau army in Warhammer 40,000, whose beginnings are becoming ever more steeped in legend and myth as more and more of my childhood is lost like tears in the rain, the origin of my Wood Elves is much more clearly documented, because it is much more modern. This is because for most of the first 17 years of my existence my pop cultural genre tastes were very early and very, very, very strongly rooted in science fiction over fantasy. Like a lot of cis male lads born in the 1990s, I quickly developed a strong fascination with various kinds of technological machinery at an early age. What started as an obsession with real-life cars, trucks, agricultural and construction machinery and all kinds of aerospace vehicles quickly moved on to Thunderbirds, Beast Wars and this very obscure short-lived 1990s Flash Gordon cartoon once I discovered television (there were many, many, many more such cartoons to follow), and then Men In Black and Star Wars once I discovered VHS tapes, with various assorted space opera artwork running throughout as I discovered books. After discovering Lego I was always much more drawn to the Space and Aquanaut ranges than I ever was the Pirates and Castle ones. Later on when I discovered video games I largely overlooked Age Of Empires in favour of Command & Conquer and later Starcraft

There were a few exceptions of course - Deltora Quest and later Harry Potter (because of course it did, I was born in the 1990s after all) remained very conspicuous islands of swords and dragons in a sea of lasers and spaceships, as did Slizers and later Bionicle. And every so often I would shamelessly pilfer some fantasy concept or another and work it into science fiction with Games Workshop efficiency - most of the fantasy universes I encountered in the wild invariably got elevated to 'future'-grade technology, and a lot of dragons got imported into space adventures, often receiving a cybernetic makeover in the process (seriously, why are there no cyber-dragons in 40k? Tolkien Orcs and Elves with spaceships are fine, but you draw the line at a general riding a giant fire-breathing cyborg dragon with a couple dozen laser cannons and missile launchers strapped onto it? REALLY?). But by and large, for pretty much all of my pre-adult life, the rule of thumb when it came to what kind of made-up worlds I liked was "Give me sci-fi or give me death". 

It was in the aesthetics you see. Science fiction, especially the space opera variety that was my favourite, was full of all these spaceships and robots and hover tanks that all zipped around quickly (or stomped around ominously) and made cool noises, as well as all these lasers and rocket launchers and machine guns and such that all made the bad guys explode, which lent science fiction visuals a certain kind of explosive oomph that a bunch of dudes poking each other with sticks (or occasionally dropping rocks on each other) could just never quite match. This mixed with the distinctive brand of savage venomous tribalism that came naturally to me back then (I blame what appears to be a long line of hyper-competitive Tools on my father's side and the cycle of hyper-competition that they fostered) to produce a particularly cringeworthy fanaticism of science fiction over fantasy that persisted for over a decade and a half. Even when I started discovering Horror Films I locked onto psychological thrillers first because oh my god only little babies are scared of ghosts and vampires and junk (yes that really is what my poor wretched misguided self thought once upon a time).

(The other, even more horrifying side of this is that I also had a very unfortunate undercurrent of Toxic Masculinity imprinted on me from a young age, which left me feeling compelled to distance myself from a lot of fantasy content out of fear of it being too girly with all those princesses running around. However hard you might be cringing at reading that, I can assure you that I am cringing at least twice as hard thinking back on it. Fortunately increasing contact with girls in High School - and some key female role-models in the media I consumed - was eventually able to deprogram me of such lunacy)

Throughout this period there was also something else bubbling under the surface after I discovered tabletop games. After getting my first ever White Dwarf magazine copy in early 2006 I was introduced to the Dwarfs that inhabited this strange alien undiscovered country of Warhammer that existed on the far side of the Games Workshop hobby that was by now giving me Warhammer 40,000. This was important, because these Dwarfs weren't like other fantasy civilisations. They had guns. They had flamethrowers. They had a primitive clock-punk attack helicopter. And THAT was enough to get my attention, in much the same way that featuring a clock-punk space shuttle in The Last Hero was enough to get me interested in Discworld. It wasn't nearly enough to win me over to this whole fantasy thing, but it was enough to begin bridging the gap. 

This was followed a little later by another White Dwarf magazine that introduced me to the Empire that inhabited this strange alien Warhammer game. Again, they had guns. And gattling guns. And rocket launchers. And a clock-punk tank. In the White Dwarf they were fighting these Vampire Count guys that had an army of zombies and wolves and ghosts and bats and things and while in the past these kinds of Halloween monsters had always felt kinda lame, these ones actually looked pretty dope. 

Maybe this whole Warhammer fantasy thing isn't as lame as I first thought it was. 

This more or less continued for a few years, before being completely swallowed up in the unprecedented upheaval that began in the 2010s. History is always a tangled chaotic mess of interlinking factors and causes and effects, and it is no different with the history of a person. But nonetheless, most historians traditionally trace the dramatic seismic shift in pop-cultural tastes that comprised the Fantasy Reformation of 2010 - 2012 to three key events. 

The first was the discovery of Urban Fantasy TV shows, specifically Angel, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and especially Supernatural. This was important because, as well as being really fun cool amazing pieces of television, they all featured a common theme of including nominally fantasy elements like monsters and magic in the nominally technological world of 20th century civilisation - Supernatural even had the characters fighting the demons and vampires and monsters with guns. It was just the right blend of modern and fantasy, coming in at just the right time of peak moody adolescence when I was ripe for gothic content, that these shows became the final missing link needed to bridge the gap and get me interested in fantasy... of a sort. 

Perhaps even more importantly for this story, these shows also primed me for what was to come for later... 

The next watershed moment came not long after, around the winter of 2010, when I went through what is quite possibly the only true religious experience I have ever had thus far, almost entirely by accident. By this time I had gotten into the LetsPlay videos of Youtuber Helloween45 - Helloween covered Horror video games, which seemed like the next logical step after discovering Horror films and TV shows. For one of his videos he was forced by technical problems to put together a slide-show of screenshots and ran that with some music over it. Helloween will never know just how much of a profound earthshaking event he was about to unleash when he decided to use the song he chose, on what I assume was entirely a whim. But he made that fateful choice, and I, following his videos, heard that song, and nothing would ever be the same again. 

The song was called Amaranth, and it was by a band called Nightwish. 

Words cannot convey just how profound listening to that song was. See, up until this point I had never really quite gotten music. Like, I could enjoy listening to it well enough, and I could follow Top 40 Pop music enough to converse with the girls at high school about it, but the idea of being as invested in it as much as I saw a lot of people was alien to me. I just wasn't really passionate about music like I was other things, and I could not give a favourite genre, artist or song to save my life (in fact, I actually failed a couple of class projects because of it). But this was different. Listening to this song, for the first time I really felt myself reflected in music. When I discovered Nightwish, I found my voice. 

When I discovered Nightwish, I finally found my sound. 

For the rest of the year, my eardrums quickly began to swim in a soup of symphonic metal as I devoured every Nightwish song I could find on Youtube as ravenously as I had devoured Warhammer 40,000 lore eight years earlier. That Christmas my best friend got me a CD of Dark Passion Play that remains one of my most treasured possessions, and I listened to it religiously for the next year. I would of course later discover other artists of a similar style that I loved, but Nightwish would forever remain my all-time favourite, and Amaranth my all-time favourite song. 

But Amaranth did more than just that. It also opened my eyes to looking at traditional fantasy in a whole new light. It's soundscape, atmosphere and accompanying music video that I watched 1100 times finally got me thinking that epic fantasy adventures could be, well, epic in their own right. And then I discovered this other little number. 

It was called The Last Of The Wilds

There are no words in The Last Of The Wilds, just 6 minutes of heart-melting instrumental beauty, and the more I listened to it the more inspired I was of faraway lands of snow-veiled mountains, deep forests of rich green pines, storm-scourged seas at midnight, silver full moons and stars, giant hawks and eagles, fearsome dragons and adventure at every turn. Now, I was finally vibing with traditional fantasy, without any technological training wheels. By now I had also been thoroughly opened up to the subgenre of dark fairy-tales, and had also gotten into Once Upon A Time.

This too primed me for what was soon to come... 

By this stage my curiosity of Warhammer had crystallised into genuine deep interest and a resolution to get involved with it at some point. My starting up with Warhammer was no longer a question of 'if', but of 'when' and 'with what game faction'. The front-runners at this point were Dwarfs (still riding the initial "Oh wow they have guns" factor and piggy-backing my explosively growing obsession with all things Nordic at the time), Bretonnians (having rediscovered them after rethinking everything I had ever believed about fairytales and, as mentioned, Once Upon A Time) and Vampire Counts (plugging into all that Horror shtick that I had deep-dived into in the preceding years and Victoria Frances artwork. Plus I still thought the concept of an army of horror monsters was pretty dope). The Empire and High Elves were also intriguing possibilities. There were also these Beastmen and Wood Elf armies that I remained curious about, having inquired into them in the past (before the Fantasy Reformation) but was unsure of what to make of them, save that the Wood Elves had these cavalry troops that rode GIANT HAWKS which was the dopest thing ever (so much so that I had stolen the concept and given it a sci-fi twist many years earlier). 

Then came the third watershed moment of the Fantasy Reformation of 2010 - 2012. And my fate was sealed. 

In the spring of 2012, around Term 3 of my final year at high school, I began to become aware of the latest video game Blizzard was working on. I think someone might have shared the trailer with me at some point. Regardless of how I found it, this trailer showed me a window into a dark gloomy fantasy world where humans struggled to survive in the cross-fire of wars between angels and demons. In other words, the culmination of all of the things that I had been deep-diving into over the last couple of years. I knew then that I had to have this video game and play through it. I needed to know more

The trailer was for a video game called Diablo III

The really important thing happened a short while later, when more information about the game became available and it turned out that one of the playable character options in this upcoming game was a person called a Demon Hunter. Demon Hunters roamed the land of the game's setting fighting Demons with crossbows and various ingenious traps and devices - just like the characters in Buffy, Angel and Supernatural. Demon Hunters went about their adventures clad head to toe in brooding dark cloak-and-hood getup, just like a lot of the characters in the fantasy artwork that I thought looked the most rad. And the female character model looked a lot like a lot of the singers in all the symphonic metal bands that had by now well and truly become my jam. In other words, this character class embodied the culmination of all the things I had been deep-diving into over the last couple of years. It was meant to be. I knew that when I got my hands on this Diablo III video game, that would be the character I would play as. 

I got my hands on that Diablo III video game for Christmas that year, and then spent the rest of the summer enjoying the simpler pleasures of shooting demons in the face with a crossbow. It was tremendous, enormous fun and I loved every second of it (except when the game said no because my wifi wasn't good enough for it). And from then on I knew exactly what I wanted my first Warhammer army to be like - I wanted an army just like the Demon Hunter I had been playing as. I would accept no substitute. In the moments when I could manage to tear myself away from Diablo III, I scoured the Warhammer model ranges for a game faction that would give me the army style I so craved, and began to grow increasingly dismayed when I found nothing that came even close to it... 

... until I remembered that Wood Elf line and gave it another look over. 

Yes. This was it. The Waywatcher models were enough to cue me into this line being the one that would provide me with the army of cloaked hooded bow-slinging anti-heroes that I so desired. Sure they used plain old longbows instead of the cool snappy pistol crossbows I had been enjoying in Diablo III, but that was a minor annoyance at most, it was still close enough. 

And so it was that in early 2013, I went out after my University classes had finished for the day, visited the GW store that was conveniently just a 15-minute walk away from campus at the time, and went home with a copy of the rulebook for 8th edition Warhammer. A few weeks later, I did the same thing and went home with a copy of the Wood Elf army book and a Battalion Box on which to found my brand new army for this strange new world of fantasy adventure. 

It is from that box that came these two: 

The Wood Elf Battalion box contained a surplus of Glade Guard sprues, more than was needed for the units of 16 I had already decided I wanted. I quickly worked out that I would have enough pieces for a full unit of 16 Glade Guard, a small band of 5 Scouts, and then three Glade Guard figures left over. These could easily be made into Characters for a Wood Elf army, and indeed that's what I did with one of them - we'll get to her later. The final two I decided to build as regular archers and put to good use as test models to practice painting on. This was very important, because the Wood Elf model range is one of the most beautiful model lines ever made for Warhammer, which in turn meant that I was absolutely terrified of painting them, because up until then my painting had largely consisted of throwing colour at models until it was impossible to see the undercoat through it. I had almost zero confidence that I would end up doing the sculpts the justice they deserved. 

The only thing that kept me going and persuaded me to try was the colour hobby section in the Wood Elf book. It featured these zoomed-in insets of certain parts of the models, which was important because not only did it show me for the first time that the 'Evy Metal studio painters were not, in fact, flawless in their painting, but also through studying them intensely I finally came to understand how highlighting works in paint. 

When I finished these two prototypes in April 2013, they represented the very apex of my model painting at the time, and showcased the very bleeding edge in my range of painting skills. They combined my newfound comprehension of highlighting with the precision detailing I had honed on Battlefleet Gothic models in the preceding years. I followed the instructions in the painting guide of the Wood Elf book to the letter, because I loved the GW studio scheme for the Wood Elves and wanted mine to look like that. Granted the greens they were painted in were a far cry from the dark drab browns and greys of the Diablo III Demon Hunters that had brought me to them, but it was a happy change since green is my favourite colour. 

They have not exactly aged gracefully, something not helped by their use as a testbed for paint sealing and finishes. The primitive method employed here - a coat of gloss varnish followed by a coat of Lahmian Medium to remove the shine - was never entirely satisfactory and always seemed to leave an unacceptable amount of shine on them even at the best of times, and one of these days I will go back and repair the finish as best as I can with the methods and resources I now have at my disposal. But nonetheless, I was awfully proud of them at the time and they motivated me to keep going with the rest of the army, which only looked better. 

And that then, was the beginning of the Meadows of Heaven. 

Sunday, 26 December 2021

Evolution of The Tau - Part 2

 My favourite TV show of all time is Firefly

It didn't start out that way of course. I actually discovered Firefly in reverse, getting into it at the end and working back. You see, it all started when, one fateful night, I went down to the local Video Ezy. And when I say I went there, I mean one of my parents took me because while nominally old enough to walk around to the local shops I was raised in a household Police State by parents a little too paranoid about my wellbeing for my own good. And I certainly didn't have the purchasing power to rent media anyway, let alone snacks to have with them. But I digress. 

So I went to the local Video Ezy and came back home with a couple of these newfangled DVD things to watch. I no longer remember what titles they were. But what I do remember, is the trailer on one of them that preceded the film. A trailer for some film that promised a slick wild ride of spaceships and anti-gravity vehicle chases and gunfights and mystery. Needless to say I immediately wanted to know where I could find this brilliant thing, but I missed the name of the picture being advertised - I was only 11 or 12 at the time. 

Like Warhammer 40,000 before it, I very nearly forgot about the whole thing until about a year or so later, when I returned to the local Video Ezy and happened upon a DVD whose covers and screenshots next to the blurb seemed to match that fun cool science fiction trailer I had seen before. Intrigued, I immediately put it on the top of the list of titles to get out on this trip. 

The DVD was called Serenity

And on the Third Year did Firefly arise from death. Truly it is The Messiah of Television shows. 

My first outing with Serenity didn't go quite according to plan. It was during my birthday party that year, and while promising my friends were completely thrown off by its nested opening sequences. I actually was too, but I was prepared to press on. However I was distinctly in the minority, so we settled on a different DVD to watch instead. The next day however, free from the burden of democracy, I gave Serenity another watch. Once again I was somewhat baffled by the opening, but I was also just entering adolescence so I was strangely intrigued by the funny feelings I was getting from watching Summer Glau on screen (they shared a lot of similarities with the funny feelings I got from Lts. Zofia and Eva whenever I played through Red Alert 2 at that time), and that was enough to get me through to where the film proper began. 

Which I am very glad of, because it was GLORIOUS

It quickly rocketed to my number 1 favourite movie slot, and remained there until I discovered that there was in fact an entire TV series of these characters in this setting before it.I managed to borrow a copy of this show, called Firefly, from one of my parents' friends, and was hooked from the start. Now is, however, not the time to delve too deeply into the unforgettable characters and their fantastic dialogue and electric chemistry, or the moments that made me feel things in my very core, or even the profound impact it had on me as my life took a screaming nose dive into hell from which it still hasn't quite recovered, but suffice to say that Firefly helped me through some very hard times. Indeed, it was one of the biggest pillars keeping me going until I discovered symphonic metal and figured out how to make friends again. 

So earlier this year when I happened to be going through some similarly dark stuff at the same time as I was - by an astonishing coincidence - house-sitting for those same people who had kindly lent their DVD set of the show, I decided to take the opportunity to give the whole series a watch-through once more, which I hadn't been able to do in a while because many of the discs in my own box set have since lost their minds. Once again, it helped me through and reminded me that there is still beauty in the world (and in the case of a couple of episodes, that there is ugliness in the world beyond myself). Naturally one of the first things I did upon returning home was then load up my DVD of Serenity - which still works - and complete the story. 

Only, that was where the problems began. That was when the colour began to fade. 

Now don't get me wrong here. I can still recognise that Serenity is a brilliant film and great in its own right, and in all honesty is probably about the best conclusion to the show that we could have realistically got. But... it's just not quite the same as Firefly. Watching it again right next to the series, I couldn't help but feel like... something was missing. 

Sure, it was bigger than Firefly, glossier, with slicker production values, and the movie-scale budget meant it could pack in a few giant flashy centrepieces that would not have been possible with a 2000s TV budget. Sure, it has all of the same ingredients as Firefly. And yet... something felt off about it. It's darker than the TV show, both literally in its visual aesthetics as well as in its overall atmosphere. The characters were always a little dysfunctional in the show, but here they fight more often than give friendly hugs and pats on the back, and they actually fight more than the bickering they did in the show, and I just did not feel like these were the same spaceship crew that would laugh endlessly together about all kinds of silly stuff. They did that all the time on the show - often about something that got brought up off-screen - but I don't remember them doing it once in the movie. Hell, I'm not sure I even remember them laughing much at all in the movie. Even the soundtrack is darker and deeper, more theatrical and less space western for the most part. And, most of all, the movie just seems to be missing that same overall innocence, feeling of love and sense of good honest FUN that the show had (the exceptions of course being the first caper at the start of the film and almost every scene with Mr Universe in it. I suspect it's no coincidence that those parts also tend to stick in the public conscious most). 

Again, I understand that a lot of that isn't really the movie's fault. A lot of it is almost certainly just the inevitable collateral damage that comes from squeezing one or two 22 hour TV seasons' worth of content, including character and storyline development, into just one 2.5 hour feature film. There was always going to be stuff that was lost in that translation. Like I say, I'm aware that the movie is probably the best conclusion anyone could have realistically expected. But that doesn't change the difference in look and feel between the movie and the show, which only grows starker when you watch them back to back. 

And that, then, is where this finally relates to the Tau in Warhammer 40,000. Because it was in thinking on this and reaching these conclusions that I finally at long last understood my issues with Codex: Tau Empire. 

In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, there is only BROWN!

Codex: Tau Empire was originally released in April 2006, about five years after the original Tau release and two years into 4th edition in what turned out to be the mid-point of the editions period of GW support. It was in most respects a pretty conservative book, especially by later GW standards - most of the army rules were left unchanged from Codex: Tau, with the few things that were changed being largely small but significant. It was accompanied by a somewhat more ambitious lineup of model releases that were centred around importing two Forgeworld vehicle kits - specifically the Skyray SAM TELAR and Piranha patrol speeder - into mainstream 40k plastic form. 

The best feature of the book by far is the expanded armoury section. Andy Hoare and the rest of the writing team on this project took the opportunity in this codex to expand the wargear armoury lineup of Codex Tau - which in fairness is... spartan to say the least - especially the Battlesuit Wargear section, which affords Tau characters with a similar level of options to what armies like Witchhunters have already been enjoying. Indeed, between the new wargear options and the Battlesuit equipment system already in place, Tau characters in Crisis Suits can start to rival even 3.5 Chaos Space Marine characters in their complexity and wealth of options. And with a very generous points budget of 100 for every character, and the most expensive item being 30 points, it is possible to load down a single Crisis Suit with every single item in the entire Battlesuit Wargear list - provided, of course, you did not take Shield Drones to escort them. They'd push you just over the limit, so you'd have to give up something for them. 

You couldn't do it for every Tau character in a Crisis suit though, because almost all of these new Wargear items were tagged with a new rule for this codex - Special Issue. The Special Issue items here mark the start of the tradition of new Tau books introducing brand new cutting edge prototype technology that you could equip certain units - usually characters in Battlesuits - with, and means that any item listed as Special Issue is restricted to one for the whole army. This effectively leaves you with the choice of either piling all the Special Issue stuff onto one single Super Prototype suit, or distributing it around the various Battlesuit characters in the army like a boring person. 

Most of these new Special Issue items were largely fun extras, like the Ejection System or the Failsafe Detonator, while a couple - namely the 2+ Armour Save Irridium Armour and the wound-canceling Stimulant Injector - were very potent and quickly became very popular amongst Tau players. But the crowning jewels of the Special Issue addons weren't Wargear items - they were the two new Battlesuit Support System options included in this book, the Command and Control Node and the Positional Relay. 

Of all the things in this book, the Command and Control Node and the Positional Relay are the two things I miss most about it these days, and the two things I would most strongly consider salvaging from it. Right off the bat they have two very powerful abilities - letting nearby units use the character's leadership for Target Priority tests and getting a single Reserve unit onto the table on a 2+ dice roll regardless of what turn it is, respectively. But more than that, when put on a Shas'El or Shas'O commander they really emphasise their role as leaders and highlight their ability to, well, command things, making them actual command units instead of just fighters with really hardcore stats. Not only that, but they also highlight two different levels of military command - the Command and Control Node, with its effects on on-table local fire control, emphasises command and leadership at the Tactical level, while the Positional Relay with its control over key Reserve deployment reflects command and leadership at the Operational level. It's beautiful. 

The final Special Issue items of note are two new Battlesuit weapon options, the Cyclic Ion Blaster and the Airbursting Fragmentation Projector, both of which got modeled as metal components that are exceptionally cool looking even now. The Airbursting Fragmentation Projector in particular is the best addition from this codex next to the aforementioned support systems, and is an auto-include on my commander in every game not played using Codex: Tau (a rare thing, and getting rarer as time goes on), being essentially a self-guiding cluster bomb launcher that functions as a short-range Mortar on crack. 

In addition to all this, the codex features a new kind of alien auxiliary unit in the form of the Vespid, a new heavy weapons unit in the Sniper Drone team, some expanded options for Stealthsuit teams, a smattering of minor rules alterations here and there, and two new named Special Characters. The first of these is Aun'Va, billed as the head Ethereal that all the other Ethereals in the Tau Empire answer to. In later books his character was taken to some pretty absurd places in the name of pandering to rabid anti-Tau fans (we'll be back for them), but here he's presented how he should have always been as the sagely non-combat Leader type that's a staple of so many RTS escort missions, and while the initial seeds of the later takes are plainly there, its a refreshing image from before the GW writers went Full Putin with him. The second is Commander Shadowsun, conceived as a foil for Farsight, and is essentially a Tau version of Sarah Kerrigan from Starcraft - even right down to the red topknot, thanks to the 'Evy Metal team - something only reinforced by some honestly pretty badass illustration artwork of her out on a covert mission in the middle of a moonlit wilderness. Shadowsun also debuts the XV-22 Battlesuit so beloved of later Tau players, even though I still think it's one of the uglier battlesuit designs; it's the helmet that kills it for me, something that I was very grateful to the Relic team for fixing in the Tau campaign of Dark Crusade

Also, speaking of artwork, Codex: Tau Empire features some more artwork by the legendary Karl Kopinski, in whose breathtaking illustrations Warhammer 40k came of age, and who has easily done the best job of capturing the Warhammer 40,000 universe in visual form (fight me 2nd Edition grognards). Currently featured on the gallery section of Karl Kopinski's website is this spicy little collection of little page doodads. 

Image sourced from All credit for artwork goes to Karl Kopinski. Seriously, check out all his artwork, he's really good!

Right away it's pretty easy to spot the influence of the Lord Of The Rings Strategy Battle Game page doodads creeping into the visual style, particularly in the shading techniques. But what I find really interesting about this collection is that not all of these made it to the final codex. Not counting the baby doodle (which judging by the very different visual tone was never seriously intended for codex publication), only half of the doodad pieces featured here were featured in the final published book. The ones that GW elected not to use are interesting, because I actually like some of them a little more than some of the final choices. Particular standouts to me include the cityscape at night and the hunk of meat with a knife plunged in it, which would have been a nice bone to throw for the Kroot aspect of the book (pun intended). 

But while Codex: Tau Empire has some fun features, it also harbours some big problems, and indeed carries the seeds of many of the later problems that would surface in GW's direction of the Tau, as well as a couple that would reflect greater problems in GW's direction of 40k itself. To start with, not all of the rules changes were good ones, with many of them being well-meaning but ultimately problematic. Take Flechette Dischargers for instance, easily one of my favourite Tau vehicle upgrade options. This book changed them from being an offensive tool, granting a bit of insurance against Death Or Glory counter-attacks when plowing the vehicle into infantry units, into a defensive tool that inflicts a bunch of moderate strength hits on infantry attacking the vehicle in close combat. Which is.. it's fine from a purely mathematical point of view, but it completely misses the point of what makes Flechette Dischargers so special and important in Codex: Tau - namely that by allowing Tau vehicles to (mostly) Tank Shock infantry units in safety, they provide Tau armies with an alternative to Kroot for clearing opposing troops off of objectives and important locations, which in turn makes the option of a pure Tau army with no alien auxiliaries in it more viable (while at the same time leaving Kroot a relevant option because they can still handle the counter-assault niche better and are better at digging opposing troops out of REALLY dense areas). 

But it goes deeper than that, because the big problem with a lot of the rules changes in Codex: Tau Empire, especially with the existing wargear upgrades, is that they were changed in ways that sacrificed something really fun and special in the name of supporting bog-standardised Pitched Battle Pick Up Games and Tournaments. The Battlesuit Sensor rules and Sensor Spines vehicle upgrade are both good examples of this - in Codex: Tau they give all Battlesuit units and any vehicle with Sensor Spines the equivalent of an Auspex/Scanner for the purposes of detecting Ambushes in Jungle scenarios and Lictor Secret Deployment. The Sensor Spines also give a bonus to navigating minefields. But in this book they give all Battlesuits the Acute Senses special rule, and vehicles the ability to make use of cover as if they weren't skimmers, respectively. 

Which is... again, I get that those effects are both more universally useful, and in particular more relevant to bog standardised Pitched Battle Pick Up Games and Tournaments, so it's great if you're the sort that mostly does that anyway, but it feels soulless. It misses out on something special. The fact that those fun special scenario and environment rules are so fundamentally baked into the DNA of its scenario mechanics is one of the best things about 3.5 Edition Warhammer 40,000, and even one of the very few parts of that core rule set I enjoy more than 4th Edition Warhammer 40,000, and the fact that here we are, with a whole unit special rule and standard vehicle upgrade right there making direct reference to those, that's something I really love. So I don't feel right seeing it gutted and replaced with.. a Universal Special Rule and a generic movement gimmick. 

(as an aside, it's also why the special Daemon World rules in White Dwarf #313(AU) are one of the best things about 4th Edition Warhammer 40,000) 

And of course there's the Markerlights. Codex: Tau Empire marked the beginning of Markerlights being Flanderised by GW writers from being a fun interesting little side quirk of the army into a crutch that's integral for the army to function at all. See, in Codex: Tau, Markerlights are very much a supplemental thing, a little bit of sauce on the side. They are by no means an integral must-have thing, and not only is it entirely possible and very common to build a fully viable Tau army without a single Markerlight in it, that's actually what Games Workshop writer Pete Haines did in the very first inaugural White Dwarf battle report featuring the Tau, and he won that game. Point is, Markerlights in Codex: Tau are a cherry on top that's there to help your assault and heavy weapons hit That One Big Threat That Has To Die Right Now. The trick here, is the magic of the Ballistic Skill 3 stat. Because Ballistic Skill 3 means always hitting on a 4+ with every gun, every shooting attack has a flat 50/50 chance of hitting, which is very easy to plan around. But on top of that, every major Tau weapon carrier has an organic way of improving those odds. Vehicles can take Targeting Arrays to make them Ballistic Skill 4, Battlesuits can take twin-linked guns (and Broadsides in particular even have their guns conveniently already twin-linked to give the player a hint about this), and everything else can effectively throw out so many shooting dice that you're guaranteed to get enough through regardless. 

In that context, Markerlights are not at all essential to a successful Tau army. But in Codex: Tau Empire that all changes. In this book, instead of just making guns hit on a flat 2+ or guiding in Seeker Missiles on a flat 2+, Markerlights provide a range of shooting related bonuses that include ignoring Night Fighting, ignoring Target Priority, improving Pinning chances and, most crucially, ignoring cover saves for the first time. On top of that, this book marks the first place where two of the most widely-used and powerful Markerlight abilities - better shooting accuracy and ignoring cover saves - are stacking modifiers that are very moderate individually, but get exponentially better the more of them are combined. This makes Markerlights enough of a force multiplier as to distinguish Tau armies into "Have Markerlights" and "Have Not Markerlights". Consequently many many more Tau players began including lots of Markerlights (helped by the introduction of a new Markerlight carrying Drone option), which in turn encouraged Games Workshop to double down on their significance in following rule sets, in a vicious cycle that continues to this day. 

Mere rules changes are one thing though, but altogether worse was the shifts in aesthetics and lore. There are many small examples of this scattered throughout the book, but perhaps the biggest one is what happened to the Ethereals, which is emblematic of one of the worst design decisions that GW went with for the post-2004 Tau. 

You see, looking at the Tau media and models ever since the release of Codex: Tau Empire, it is very readily apparent that at some undisclosed point between 2001 and 2006, someone at Games Workshop sat down one day, watched Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, and then said to themselves, "YES! This, this right here, THIS is what we need for our new Tau game faction!" 

Because since then, with every major iteration, GW seems to be hell-bent on injecting more and more aspects and tropes of the Star Wars Prequel antagonists into the Tau game faction. And the epitome of this trend is the Ethereals, and their models in particular, which each edition seem to get more and more like the Neimoidians in the Star Wars Prequels - especially The Phantom Menace. And it all started with this 2006 Tau release wave, and this Codex: Tau Empire. The Ethereal models released for it represent the most obvious visual links between the two. I mean, just look at them next to each other: 

Real subtle there, GW

I'm using the particular 4th Edition Ethereal sculpt that's closest to those exact costuming designs to illustrate a point. There are about three other variant sculpts that are a little more distinct, but not by a lot. Likewise there was a later plastic Ethereal model released in 2017 which breaks from those characters visually, but this just replaces that with 1) just being a very boring and ugly model in general and 2) only really treating the symptom and not the disease. 

That's because while they started to cut some of the visual ties to the Neimoidians from the Star Wars Prequels, they only doubled down on the characterisation ties. This ones a little hard to explain without lots of video clips, which is a form of techno-sorcery beyond my primitive TV writer brain, but suffice to say that a lot of the major attributes exhibited by the Neimoidian characters - being unscrupulous, greedy, devious and ultimately cowards - are all attributes that are increasingly exhibited by Ethereal characters in post-2005 Tau fiction, both from Games Workshop itself and Black Library. Which is bad not just because it's a very lazy and tired way of characterising authority figures, but also because it's Problematic for the same factors that make the coding and characterisation of the Neimoidian characters in the Star Wars prequels Problematic. A subject on which there's already been plenty of discourse elsewhere. 

In all deadly seriousness, what my creative writer's instincts are telling me happened was that this particular example at least is a case of Convergent Evolution. I suspect that when designing the models, and writing the fiction, the Games Workshop team went to all the same root sources of inspiration that the Phantom Menace production crew did for the Neimoidians, asked all the same questions they did, went through the exact same creative and workshopping processes they did, and thus inevitably came out with an extremely similar end product that has all of the same flaws. 

But then I look at the style of Tau buildings depicted in the themed terrain sets used in all the model shoots (sure, there was a little of the style in the 2001 Games Day board themed around a Tau city, but not with nearly as many weird slim fin-like elements everywhere), and I remember that this 2006 era of the Tau is the same era that produced Dark Crusade, a game that infamously gave Tau drones "Roger Roger" style robot voices, and I cannot help but wonder if someone in Games Workshop circa 2004-2005ish really did watch too many Star Wars prequels. 

But it goes even deeper than that. All throughout the book there's just this creeping darkness, and creeping murkiness, that pervades everything. The new artwork is less bold and vibrant in its shading. The graphics are more sinister. There's the first creeping appearances of the vectors with which Games Workshop will later inject Grim Darkness into the Tau game faction to appease the 1d4chan crowd. In Aun'va's lore blurb they even mention Tau on a crusade for gods sake. Tau! In a crusade! That's the kind of language you'd expect from an Imperial codex, not a Tau one. And all those beautiful 1950s Space Opera throwbacks about exploring the cosmos are thin on the ground, replaced by talk about binary join-or-die expansionism that was never really much of a thing in the earlier material and invariably painted as freak outliers when it did happen. 

Even the cover illustration is bleaker. Just look at the cover art for Codex: Tau, bursting with bold vibrant colour and life, promising a world of adventure and excitement and dynamic progress: 

Nothing says "Space Opera adventure!" quite like a desert battle beneath an aggressively blue sky

And then compare it to the bleak drab murky tones of the cover art for Codex: Tau Empire

In the Grim Darkness of the far future, there is only BROWN!

And all in all the whole book feels pervaded by, well... a sense of innocence lost. 

Which brings us full circle to the conclusion I've reached, the voice I've finally been able to give to my reservations about this book. You see... 

Codex: Tau Empire is to Codex: Tau what Serenity is to Firefly. 

Sure, it's bigger than Codex: Tau, and glossier, with slicker production values, and the 2006 GW budget meant it could pack in a few giant flashy centrepieces that would not have been possible with a 2001 codex budget. 

And sure, it has all of the same ingredients as Codex: Tau. And yet... something feels off about it. It's darker than the original codex, both literally in its visual aesthetics as well as in its overall atmosphere. The characters were always a little expansionist in the first codex, but here they fight more often than explore the wonders of the cosmos, and they actually fight wars more than the border disputes and peaceful coexistence they practiced in the original lore, and I just do not feel like this is the same love letter to Supermarionation and 1950s - 1970s Space Opera that would solve problems with intelligence more than violence. They did that all the time in the original fiction - often running rings around some hapless human diplomat from the Imperium - but I don't remember them doing it once in Codex: Tau Empire. Hell, I'm not sure I even remember the Imperium sending diplomats to negotiate with the Tau at all in the post-2005 material. Even the cover artwork is darker and deeper, more gritty and less space opera for the most part. And, most of all, Codex: Tau Empire just seems to be missing that same overall innocence, feeling of love and sense of good honest FUN that Codex: Tau has (the exceptions of course being the Wargear Armoury and Special Issue Weapons. I suspect it's no coincidence that those parts also tend to stick in the public conscious most). 

And I'm aware it's not the book's fault. The things that concern me in this book are almost entirely due to flawed creative processes and attempts to pander to the 1d4chan segment of the Warhammer 40,000 player base. But that doesn't change the difference in look and feel between Codex: Tau Empire and Codex: Tau, which only grows starker when you read them back to back. 

It's a reasonable enough book, especially from a purely mechanical point of view, but whenever I look through it I can't help but feel like there's something missing in it, something intangible but very important nonetheless. And it took my first tabletop love from me. 

So that then, is why I invariably give Codex: Tau Empire a pass these days, and use Codex: Tau instead whenever possible, especially in 4th Edition Warhammer 40,000, because that book brings a smile to me more in much the same way that Firefly warms my soul more than Serenity these days. 

GW can't take the sky from me...

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Evolution of The Tau - Part 1

 Twenty years ago today something happened that changed the face of Games Workshop, and Warhammer 40,000 in particular, forever. 

OK, so it wasn't exactly today. It was actually staggered out over 3 months in 2001, beginning in October and continuing through to December, but this year does mark the 20 year anniversary of the greatest game-changer of GW history (fight me Oldhammer and 1d4channers), and certainly the greatest game-changer in the history of Warhammer 40,000 (again, Die Mad Oldhammer and 1d4channers). If nothing else, it is certainly the most underrated game-changer in the history of Warhammer 40,000, which is objectively provable by way that I have observed virtually no-one on the Internet seems to have even mentioned it this whole month. 

(Now granted, as previously established last time I do live under a rock on a cold dark planetoid orbiting a Black Hole approximately 42 billion light years away from the Earth, so if this isn't the case and there has indeed been a lot of discourse about this on Reddit or Tweet-Tok or whatever the devil it is that young people use to talk about tabletop games on the Internet these days then please do correct me on this in the comments. But my initial Google Search for 'Tau in 40k 20 Year Anniversary' produced precisely two (2) results that were relevant to the topic, so I'm going to assume it's just not being talked about as much as it should)

I am, of course, talking about the introduction of the single most underrated game faction in Warhammer 40,000. 

The Image that got me into tabletop games.

The Tau, in case you aren't aware, are one of the major game factions in the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game. The short gist of them is that in the game universe they are a high-tech alien civilisation that controls a quickly growing empire in the eastern edge of the galaxy, which includes both Tau planets and numerous other alien civilisations that have joined the Tau peacefully and now coexist with them. In the grand scheme of things, where the various Warhammer 40,000 game factions represent different science fiction tropes, the Tau are your classic Space Opera faction. 

Originally the Tau were planned to be introduced to the game and its players at the end of 2001, but as the release date drew near an executive decision was made to bump them up ahead a month, so they were released on the faithful month of October instead of November. So the legend in the White Dwarf first covering them goes at any rate. 

Clearly someone at Games Workshop knew exactly how brilliant their new creation was. 

Thus it was that this time 20 years ago the world was introduced to the first Tau models ever released by GW - the Fire Warrior infantry troops, the Kroot Carnivore auxiliary troops, and the Gun Drones, along with a Battleforce box set that included all of the above and a group of Crisis battlesuits. Plus the Tau codex itself, of course. 

The following month, November 2001 saw the release of the Broadside battlesuit, the Devilfish and Hammerhead hover tanks, the Pathfinder reconnaissance scouts, the Kroot Hounds and Kroot shaper leaders, the Ethereal leader, and the special named characters of the codex, Aun'Shi and O'Shovah or Commander Farsight as he's more commonly known. 

Finally, December 2001 featured the last Tau releases, the XV15 stealth troops, the Krootox and Crisis Battlesuits as an individual item, leaving every unit in the codex with model representation. It should be noted that as well as the Crisis suits, the Broadside suits, Devilfish, Pathfinders and Krootox were all released right from the start in October as part of an army box set deal, because as BOLS points out some things never change. This army box set also included a special edition Ethereal model that was just about never released as a standalone model, which was a thing that all of the army box sets at the time did because GW in 2001 was just that awesome. 

FUCK. YEAH. (Image taken from Worthpoint)

The written material for the Tau was similarly staggered, with an Index Xenos lore piece and basic rules for Fire Warriors included in White Dwarf #261(US) for October 2001, and the bulk of the release content a month later in White Dwarf #262. It is here that the Designer's Notes for the Tau were first published. They are still available on the original GW website, accessible through the Wayback Machine internet archive, and are strongly recommended reading. 

It is in these Designer's Notes, penned by the God Emperor of 40k Andy Chambers himself, that the origins of the Tau are revealed. In the tail end of the 1990s and the dawn of the 2000s (presumably, given the average 2-year production cycle of these things), the decision was made in Games Workshop to add in a brand new game faction for the Warhammer 40,000 franchise, something fresh and unique to shake up the status quo of fantasy civilisations in space that had largely crystallised in 40k by around half-way through 2nd edition, more or less. The only trouble was, the Games Workshop designers had no idea what it should be. They had an enormous list of possible concepts to develop, and even after extensive narrowing down they became deadlocked on two options: either expanding on the Kroot, a minor alien civilisation briefly referenced in the 3rd edition 40k Rulebook, or developing a total clean sheet alien concept called the Tau. 

It was at this point that 40k developer Rick Priestly stepped in, and made like the girl in the Old El Paso ads. 

Rick Priestly, circa 1999-2000, probably

And so the two factions were developed simultaneously, with the Kroot evolving into one of the most important alien allies of the Tau, and foil for them conceptually and aesthetically - one is a bright altruistic unified force of high-tech aliens, one is a scattered species of semi-nomadic tribes and warbands of brutal but technologically limited aliens, TOGETHER! They save the universe! 

I'd certainly watch that show. 

At the heart of the Tau concept was a determination to have a clean break from the rest of the Warhammer 40,000 setting. The Tau were envisaged from Day 1 to be a direct foil to the other 40k factions, an island of good honest positivity in a sea of Grim-Dark despair and horror. In the words of Andy Chambers: 

"In contrast to the other races, we wanted the Tau to be altruistic and idealistic, believing heartily in unification as the way forward."

And if it were up to me, that quote would be laser-etched into the cover of every Tau-related product Games Workshop ever released. It would also be burned into the front door of whatever department or writer was tasked with working on them, and perhaps tattooed onto said writer's forehead as well for good measure. 

For the purposes of growing the franchise and keeping it relevant, this concept was a stroke of genius, and also perfectly filled a notable thematic hole in the setting to boot. You see, up until 2001 40k had always been missing a Space Opera faction in its lineup. Not a Skulls and Candles gothiced up Space Opera faction like the Imperium, no I'm talking a real Space Opera faction - no skulls, no candles, no hoods or ominous latin, no religious dogma, just good old fashioned Enlightenment ideals and good honest science and technology and innovation, populated by good honest explorers and scientists and artists and intellectuals all striving to solve problems with their heads (and the occasional death ray or nuclear missile or 10) rather than a chainsaw. 

For the first decade or so of 40k's existence there wasn't anything like that - the Imperium and Space Marines in particular kind of skirted around the periphery of it in Rogue Trader but dropped any pretense of trying to appeal to it VERY quickly and the last vestiges of that were largely gone by the middle of 2nd Edition. And this is particularly painfully conspicuous because until 2001 40k had just about damn near every other flavour of science fiction civilisation in existence featured in some shape or form. Space Bugs? Check. Mad Max scavenger punks? Check. Crystal-powered science fantasy? Check. Cyberpunk? OK that one sort of slipped through a little as well but the Imperium still retained a lot of that long past Rogue Trader. Check. 

Everything except an honest normal good ol' fashioned 20th Century Space Opera civilisation. The Tau filled that niche wonderfully, completing the full spectrum of Science Fiction Trope Deathmatch that is Warhammer 40,000. 

"Now you see here, you no-good bleeding heart snot-nosed little Simp Cuck fake fanboi," I hear from the festering pit of hate that is the comment sections of the internet, "40k got on just fine without any of this honest wholesome Space Opera stuff for 20 odd years, and it can get on just fine without it now!" 

Well Mr (or Ms, but with language like the above who are we kidding here) 2nd edition worshipping Dankhammer Keyboard Warrior, that brings me to the second aspect of the genius behind the design and inclusion of the Tau. 

See, 40k fans like to talk about themselves as the centre of the pop culture universe, or at least the science fiction pop culture universe, but the bitter truth is even within that very specific niche of a niche we're a minority (a vocal minority at times, but a minority nonetheless). There are a lot more Star Trek and Star Wars fans than there are 40k ones, for example, and I'd wager there are probably more Starcraft fans than 40k ones as well. And that, in no small part, is because the bitter truth is that 40k is pretty niche even by science fiction standards. Let's be honest here, it takes a very specific mindset to fully get into the groove of a lot of 40k, to fully appreciate the concept of fantasy Orcs with guns and spaceships or gothic lovecraftian chainsaw insanity, and a lot of people just don't get it. I know this because I've learnt it the hard way in my ill-fated attempts to get people interested in the tabletop games I enjoy, where I have had a precisely 0% success rate and a precisely 100% incidence of confused but well-meaning smiles and nods and "Oh yes that's... very interesting." 

The bitter truth is, in the grand scheme of things most people, even most sci-fi enthusiasts, just aren't that interested in playing games as skull-encrusted medieval lunatics with chainsaws in space cathedrals. And that gets even more apparent when you step into the vast endless abyss of people who aren't major consumers of science fiction. 

Enter then, the Tau. A 40k faction for the normal sci-fi fan, a 40k faction for the normal tabletop gamer, nay, a 40k faction for the normal pop-culture consumer given the leaps and bounds science fiction has made in breaking through to the mainstream. By existing in the 40k setting as this nice good-natured progressive Space Opera faction, the Tau provide a gateway into the 40k franchise for a whole range of people who could be interested in science fiction tabletop games, but are put off by the other 40k game factions. And this is a very good thing for two reasons: 

1) It means more customers, thus growing the business and getting the game company (GW here) more money. 

2) It means more people playing Warhammer 40,000, thus growing the player-base and making it easier to find gaming opponents and connect with people over this tabletop thing. 

The technical scientific term for this situation, used by leading experts and Industry Veterans alike, is a Win-Win. 

And there's concrete evidence for this working. You're reading it right now. The truth is, if the Tau hadn't been created there is no question that I would have given 40k a hard pass, never gotten into it, and by extension probably never have gotten into Tabletop gaming at all. Somewhere out there is a Millitant in a parallel dimension where the Tau were never created, writing comfortably about the sad state of computer gaming from his tricked out custom PC rig created from parts purchased with all the money he never spent on tabletop games. Either that or he plays electric guitar and writes about that. Or he works on cars or motorcycles or something I guess. Point is, in that parallel dimension where the Tau were never created for Warhammer 40,000, the Millitant that inhabits it does NOT have anything to do with tabletop games. 

I am exactly one of those people who the Tau were aimed at, and it worked like a charm. And where there's one case of that, it's almost certain there's more. 

But it's not just about real world Doylist considerations. The Tau as a bright happy genuinely noble and altruistic good guy force enriches the wider Warhammer 40,000 setting enormously as well. Right off the bat they act as a moral counterweight to the rest of the setting, a kind of safety valve for avoiding burnout from Darkness-induced apathy, because even if you are into it Grimdark gets exhausting after a certain point. It is a horrible irony that all to often I see comments online about people clamouring for something lighter in 40k for a break in the grim darkness, despite the Tau being RIGHT THERE. 

It goes deeper than that though, because the presence of the Tau as genuine legit good guys also enhances the grim darkness of everything else. Part of this is the juxtaposition between the Tau and everyone else - after all you can't really have darkness without light to contrast it against. But it's more than that, because the very existence of the Tau as these good guys also has extremely grimdark implications for everyone else's actions. Because their presence proves that classic good guys can thrive in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, it takes everyone else's horrible actions from being born out of simple necessity to deliberate, purposeful choices driven by character flaws - in other words, classic tragedy. 

Think about it. how much more grimdark is it that, after uncounted thousands of years of unrelenting horror and bloodshed, when the powers of the galaxy are, at long last, finally presented with a genuine legitimate bona fide way out of this nightmare, their reaction is to ignore it and continue on with their unending bloodbath, possibly going so far as to try and stamp out this way out if the opportunity arises - all because they're too cowardly to take it, or too greedy, or too prideful, or too stubborn, or because it would mean they can no longer reap the benefits of the utterly broken systems that are the status quo, or even just because they're simply too institutionalised to the suffering; that after 40,000 years and countless generations of unending slaughter they're just no longer capable of adjusting to or even comprehending a reality that isn't drowning in horror and death. After all: 

"It is not the Horror of War that troubles me, but the Unseen Horrors of Peace."

So much more Grimdark and interesting than "herp derp they have sterilisation camps after all" (We'll be back for you later). 

But themes and concepts alone don't comprise a tabletop faction. Being a tabletop miniatures game made by a tabletop model company, the Tau needed a strong coherent visual style to produce a range of fantastic looking models so that lots of people would buy them. The GW studio designers more than delivered, creating a range of beautiful models with a completely unique aesthetic design. Even so, all art is a process of evolution, with all artistic creations inheriting from the influences that first inspired them. The Tau are no exception, and there is one source of inspiration behind the Tau style that shines through more than any other, a source material whose fingerprints are unmistakable and clear for all to see on the design style of the models and even the thematic tone of Tau lore. 

There can be only one classic pillar of science fiction to which I am referring to, a unique and easily recognisable visual art form from an Island Nation, a visual art form that is beloved across the world and renowned for its bold striking style and dynamic futurism. I am, of course, referring to... 


The genesis of the Tau. 1960s, Colourised

In case you live in one of those savage backwaters where its glory was never syndicated, or if you have the misfortune of not existing until after the shows were aired, SUPERMARIONATION is a screen media format created in Slough, England by Gerry Anderson with the help of Sylvia Thamm (who he later married). It was primarily made for Television broadcast, but also produced a couple of films as well. It consisted of building the most breathtaking, jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring model scratch-builds and kitbashes ever conceived by human minds...

... and then BLASTING THEM TO KINGDOM COME on camera. 

Oh and there was usually some stuff about characters portrayed by puppets thrown in to string the model explosions together into a coherent story too. 

But aside from the monstrous explosions that put Michael Bay films to shame (and since these shows were made before computers were much of a thing, they were all practical too - every time you see something in these shows explode, they blew it up for real), the thing that stands out about Supermarionation is its distinct art design and visual style, a design aesthetic that has never really been seen before or since. It's a striking design language, full of dynamic futuristic architecture and vehicle designs with lots of clean Utopian future technology. 

Now why does that sound familiar? 

Even as an 8-year old kid, the Supermarionation influence on the Tau design was obvious to me from the moment I first laid eyes on the models. In fact, the first time I ever saw pictures of the Forgeworld Tau aircraft my first reaction was: 

"Oh my god, they're like the planes in Thunderbirds!" 

In the beginning it was the intakes that first cued me in. Those huge square intakes with their solid grating in the inside remain one of the most easily recognised parallels between the Tau and Supermarionation designs. Just look at one of the best examples of these in Supermarionation, the prow intake pods of Skyship One from the film Thunderbird 6

The anti-gravity zeppelin my childhood was built on

In case you missed what I'm talking about, here it is again with the big square intakes and their solid grills highlighted. 

And here they are again on the Tau Tigershark aircraft. 

The Tau aircraft diorama my Warhammer 40,000 is built on.

Like I say, when I was looking at that thing on the Forgeworld Website (and its little brother the Barracuda), Thunderbirds and Skyship One was immediately the very first thing that came to mind. And the fact I watched Thunderbird 6 on VHS a hundred times when I was in Primary School can't take full credit for that. The design cues are there. 

And there are certainly more of them. For a very long time I couldn't quite put my finger on them exactly, I simply had a vague gestalt awareness that these models had an obvious Supermarionation influence. But recently I've finally been able to identify what it is - a common visual design language. 

See, the Tau models - and by extension Tau technology itself - are built on a very simple but effective visual style at their core. At the heart of the Tau aesthetic is a body of hard solid angles, that are punctuated by a few sleek curves. This design language crops up everywhere in the Tau model range, from the Fire Warrior infantry to the battlesuits and all the way up into the vehicles that are the stars of the Tau range. 

And it's the same visual design language used throughout Supermarionation shows - hard, solid angles punctuated by a few sleek curves. 

In the case of the Tau vehicles specifically, they also share another unifying feature - a pod like control centre or cockpit, semi-inset with a raised superstructure, with a slit-like forward vision block, and normally located in the centre of the vehicle's front. This is important, because, surprise surprise, the same feature shows up in a lot of Supermarionation vehicle designs too. 

Just compare the Martian Space Probe transporter from Thunderbirds

Or Thunderbird 4 itself 

Alongside the Tau Hammerhead Gunship: 

Tau in 40k are GO...

Admittedly it's not quite as blatant when you can't get the angles on the example shots to match perfectly, but hey I have to work with what the Internet gives me. Point is, the visual design and style influences are clearly there to see. And of course they are, because it makes such perfect sense given how closely the Tau dovetail the themes, atmosphere and tone of Supermarionation shows, especially Stingray and Thunderbirds.

Now none of the GW studio people ever explicitly mentioned Supermarionation when discussing the Tau in the Designers' Notes for them, but they don't have to because it goes without saying. I know that Supermarionation was a huge influence on them, because they were (mostly) British lads who grew up in the UK post-Supermarionation, and it was one of those game-changing phenomena that colour everything that comes after them. It's the same reason why it's a big influence on me and a lot of my science fiction stuff outside 40k, because there was just no escaping it in 1990s Aotearoa either. 

And what a legacy to incorporate! 

Right then, that about wraps things up for this instalment! The Tau have been a fixture of 40k for 20 years now, and it's fair to say they've earned their place as one of the key iconic factions of the setting. Next time on this blog we should be back to showcasing some painted models that I've finally at long last finished so be sure to come back for- 

What's that?

Eh? what? 

What do you mean? 


Ugh. Fine. 

I suppose we probably need to address that other artistic medium that gets brought up all the time, if we really must. 

So for most of their lifetime as a game faction the Tau have been commonly labelled "The Anime faction". This mostly stems from their use of large bipedal robot walkers, which are a common staple in science fiction Anime, and some references in the Tau Designers' Notes. I mean... I can see where people can come from there, but the label has never sat right with me at all. It feels like a big disservice to the Tau in rendering them down into a single one-dimensional concept, and ultimately lies at the heart of some problematic decisions GW has taken with the model range in recent times (again, we'll come back to this later). Ultimately I can't help but feel like far too many people allow a couple of off-the-cuff throwaway lines from the Designers' Notes to do their thinking for them. 

And they ARE off-the-cuff throwaway remarks. How do I know this? Because the GW studio designers themselves downplay them in the very Designers' Notes they feature in: 

"[The Tau Battlesuits] had obvious Manga influence, but we tried to steer away from any one inspirational source, gleaning our ideas from a wider range." 

Those are Jess Goodwin's own words. It's the same with the Ashigaru influences on the Fire Warrior infantry armour - they're downplayed in the same sentence they're mentioned. 

"The Fire Warrior armour was suggested by Japanese Ashigaru foot soldiers, but we only wanted a subtle influence to come through."

Emphasis mine in both cases. The GW studio designers who originally worked on the Tau clearly never intended them to be only a shout-out to science fiction Anime and Manga. Indeed, the message that shines through in the Designers' Notes is that what the GW studio designers DID intend for the Tau was to be a beautiful creative maelstrom of different influences and ideas coming together into an organic combination that produced something both fresh and inventive and greater than the sum of its parts. 

"It had been agreed that the Tau were to be a high tech race, and, with this in mind, I tapped into a wide variety of science fiction elements to come up with my first concept sketch. This was the basic premise behind what was eventually to become the Battlesuit." 

(So even the Battlesuits themselves were born from so much more than just Anime and Manga)

"Although the initial sketches bear some resemblance to the final product, the Tau were born from an amalgamation of ideas that worked off each other to produce the final range.

"One of the best aspects of designing the Tau force was that we were all working on pieces at the same time. This resulted in a wide range of individual's ideas which all pulled together.

And Jess Goodwin is right here. There is so much more to the Tau than 'Anime shoutout', and even a cursory glance over the model range reveals so many more core pillars of their premise than that - I've highlighted the obvious Supermarionation influence already, but even that doesn't even touch on the enormous obvious influence that classic 20th Century Space Opera had on the Tau, both in their visuals (many Tau models, ESPECIALLY the Kor'vattra starships, would be right at home on the pages of Mechanismo or Terran Trade Authority) and their lore, with its strong emphasis on exploring the cosmos and abundance of characters who prefer to solve problems with their words and wits over violence, as well as the very strong Enlightenment ideals that science, reason and technology can solve any problem that are baked into the Tau DNA, and the Tau operating on an overall somewhat harder level of science fiction than the rest of the 40k factions. 

It's the same with all of the 40k game factions. Like the Tau, each one is to a greater or lesser extent the product of a wonderful fusion of different influences and inspirations and ideas that's more than the sum of its parts, and rendering any of them down to a single root concept cheapens them. The Necrons are far more than just Undead in Space, they're just as much a love letter to the Faceless AI machine overlords in science fiction and H.P. Lovecraft. The Orks are far more than just Tolkien Orcs in space, they're just as much a love letter to Mad Max post-apocalyptic scavenger punk science fiction and Punk subculture in general. The Eldar are so much more than Tolkien Elves in space, they're a love letter to the mythic Planetary Romance Science Fantasy subgenre and classic 1900s - 1940s space opera, and even had strong Anime and Asian pop cultural influences long before the Tau arrived on the scene. 

So it is with the Tau, as much - if not more - a love letter to classic 1950s - 1970s space opera and Supermarionation as they are an Anime shoutout (as well as having a little bit of 1980s-1990s cyberpunk thrown in for good measure). 

And with that, we can at last finally come to the conclusion of this thrilling first part into a deep dive of the Tau, who have now been conquering the 41st Millennium for 20 years and with any luck will be conquering it for many more to come.