Thursday, 2 February 2017

Gathering Storm: Fall of Cadia Part 4 - Storytelling Devices and Failings (Warhammer 40,000 Supplement Review)

So, with the rules done, we're finally closing this one out with a brief examination. This admittedly took a bit longer than expected for two reasons. 

Firstly, I wanted to check what I was willing to divulge about this book, given the attempts to dodge some of the more spoiler filled moments of the book in previous parts. Okay, we covered some of the core story elements there, but everyone knew Cadia was going to die, and the story was trying not to directly divulge some of the awesome character moments of the tale. 

Secondly, it seemed best to seriously look over and consider where the greatest failings stemmed from here and compare them with the thoughts of others. grdaat in particular (and please read the comments for the lore section, as his analysis is worthy of an entirely new review in of itself) disagreed with many points of the narrative, and a few others were disheartened with how it turned out. While personally I did enjoy this one and will happily defend it against any who would call it an outright failure, it did stumble at various points. This was mostly not down to poor story direction or poor concepts so much as simply poor execution. So, after some analysis and examination this part will be detailing the biggest issues holding back the book from true greatness.

Now, with that out of the way, let's start with the most obvious of these.

Story Length

This won't be the first time we have argued that a story skimped on the more detailed aspects of an event, and it most certainly will not be the last. However, while the likes of Sentinels of Terra, Crimson Slaughter and Clan Raukaan screwed things up by abusing and poorly pacing their tales, this one was trying to fit too much into too short of a space. To cover an event on this scope, to even just give the necessary glory to the core battles, this book needed to have a length akin to an Imperial Armour or End Times volume. It needed to be able to establish the build-up towards the initial conflict, set the scene and recount past assaults. With that in place it would have been able to offer a far more well-rounded depiction of the major conflict.

Now, this isn't to say that there could not have been time-skips here and there. Such things are present in almost any war book and even the Siege of Vraks, which was given an entire trilogy to fully present the war, often would skim over months at a time. However, it also knew exactly when to focus upon what was important and how to skim over certain events, starting with a strong punch and then developing things until the next major twist came in to play. One of the big criticisms of this book was, after all, that it jumped right to the end and showed the final days of the Thirteenth Black Crusade over the whole thing. All we were given was a general mention of previous events, a few justifications for this being far more ground based than usual, and that was that.

Instead, consider how it could have gone otherwise - We have an introduction quickly establishing the situation on Cadia and the growing concerns of increased cult activity about the Cadian Gate. Some investigations, some increased security and concerns this could be building towards a major Chaos assault. Reinforcements are requested to guard against this threat, and the Astartes Praeses are put on high alert. There could even be a shout-out to the Word Bearers trilogy given the previous assault made in those books, or the Warp gates they guard. Then, the cult uprising is proven to rapidly be far more serious than they realise. As they try to root it out, mass acts of sabotage occur across the major facilities and ships defending the world. Some are halted, but despite their best efforts a number of others are not. 

The first wave of Chaos ships attack, the vanguard to Abaddon's forces, and the worlds face a massive assault from within and without. Ages old security measures are pressed into place, and we see how Cadia has been established to secure itself against such sudden assaults. The Imperium holds the line against this opening attack, driving them back, but the initial damage has been done. The effort was to test their defences and divert forces away from other potential cult incursions. Grimly, the Imperium continues to send reinforcements and prepare for the worst.

This is admittedly just a general outline for a start, but it wouldn't take too many pages to effectively cover this. Perhaps four or five of these at the most, and even if Games Workshop did desire them to be ground based, they could still add in more justifications or moments to build up towards these events. To add in ideas or concepts to string things along a bit, skim over weeks at a time, and then concentrate the best action to a few key points. While it might seem somewhat short if they were to stick to two major battles in the book before moving on to the endgame seen here, it would give greater satisfaction to the core conflict.

However, even beyond the main battles itself, there are various points which desperately needed space to be better fleshed out. There are effectively jump cuts in the story where neccessary details were desperately needed. Easily the greatest among these surrounded Abaddon himself, where the Warmaster of Chaos makes abrupt decisions which only makes sense in terms of story rather than the character, and he seems to abruptly know things. The location of the big pylon and what is going on there is obviously the big one, but as is the mention of how he gets into the thick of things only out of pure hubris. That's more or less a one-off mention with no further establishment or detail, but in concept it does still work. Perhaps the story could argue that Abaddon personally desires to witness the death of Cadia first-hand, and throttle the life out of its greatest defender rather than allowing his troops to do it. It wouldn't be out of place, and it would be fitting of the man himself.

However, even beyond this there are also many points where the tale keeps just adding stuff in or skipping over necessary development. In the previous lore section the mysterious repair of a pylon was mentioned by a xenos race. This seems to come out of nowhere and adds to nothing, but the implication is that this is either the result of the eldar or necrons getting involved. Again, this is a concept which isn't too bad at all if it was intended to help foreshadow their involvement. It just doesn't serve any purpose given how it is written and there needed to be at least a few more paragraphs to make the whole event truly effective.

What makes me personally think this isn't down to a direct failing of the writer is how this stops for sections of the story. Really, large battle sequences, invasions, or direct conflicts are fully detailed and fleshed out as needed without these sudden "jump cuts" within the tale. As such, it almost seems as if this was a much larger story which was abruptly cut down to fit a much smaller page count. A cost saving measure which only served to hinder the effectiveness of the overall story in the end.

Abaddon the Strategist

Abaddon the Despoiler himself was cited as a big, big failing of the story. While he could hold his own in combat, apparently someone robbed him of his brain cells before the tale started, leaving him as more of a brute than usual. One of the big retcons in past tales was to outline the Black Crusades as test runs and efforts to gather strength. These were all done to appease the primarchs, gain favour of the Chaos Gods without directly submitting himself to them, and to better plan out his true assault. This is one of the things which stood out as a major strength in Codex: Black Legion, which was also written by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, and has become the favoured depiction of Abaddon. While he can adapt to situations quickly and has something of a "tunnel-vision" flaw when it comes to his main objectives, this suggests he is capable of thinking things out on a grand scale.

So, this should have been able to reference those past events, right? This should be able to give him the impression of being able to have a grand, sprawling battle-plan with multiple contingencies and millennia worth of efforts all coming into play, right? Well, not really. If anything, the presentation here really doesn't account for all that much. If you want to be forgiving, you do at least argue that he has the combined might of countless warbands and unique forces behind him. However, that doesn't really make him very different from the likes of Huron Blackheart, Honsou or countless other Chaos leaders. It doesn't do enough to show why he's the Warmaster and why he is the favoured leader of the Traitor Legions. This needed to show him having plans within plans, wheels within wheels, and not to hurl everything he has at a foe and expect it to work out.

Now, the story does try to reflect upon this at a few key points, but most of them never work in quite the right way. For example, a relatively decent if minor display of this planning involved the daemonic ascension of one of his subordinates and then using him as a spearhead inside an Imperial fortress. It works, the newly blessed daemon prince hacks his way through a veritable legion of troops, and it turns what could have been a major stalemate partially in their favour. However, at another point we have a Blackstone Fortress - one of a small handful left in the galaxy - explode thanks to enemy intervention. The book then tries to spin this as part of Abaddon's plan all along with it crashing down atop of his main target. As a main plan this is insanely stupid and wasteful to say the least. As a backup plan, even then it would still suffer a few logical problems, given there are vastly more effective methods in launching an orbital bombardment. The only way it possibly works is by arguing that Abaddon is a commander who works best by reacting, adapting and almost spin-doctoring situations, but this just doesn't align with his prior depictions.

Perhaps the worst case in regards to failing to recognize his capabilities here is the act of destroying the pylons themselves. Now, actually being forced to destroy them to prevent the Mechanicus-Necron alliance from closing the Eye of Terror? That could work, and it could even be used to best show Abaddon's determination to defeat his enemy, even if it costs him an ages old objective. Yet, making this his primary battle plan? Well, that's where he runs into more than a few problems. 

The big, and quite obvious one, is why he kept attacking the Cadian Gate in the first place. The pylons offered an area of stability around an otherwise extremely treacherous realm and near impossible realm. Trying to fly out of the Eye at almost any other point was difficult bordering on suicide for more than just a few ships at a time. The reason the Gothic War caught the Imperium by surprise was because it was a rare moment where Abaddon was able to fly out of a narrow (and normally closed) gap in the perpetual Warp storms to attack an entirely new sector. If Abaddon were to take Cadia, he would not only have a heavily defended base of operations to stage new assault from, but he would have a calm and controlled gulf in the Warp to directly fly his ships all the way to Terra. Most 50K fanfiction stories such as The Shape of the Nightmare to Come tended to account for this, so it's odd they would abandon it here.

There are ultimately only two key reasons I could personally see for why Abaddon might have done this. One would be to disrupt the Imperium as much as himself. His forces were repeatedly delayed at Cadia and took heavy casualties, so it's not beyond all reason to think he might decide to extend the Eye to prevent any further counter offensives. However, this comes with a few logical flaws such as the fact he could just pull his forces back inside the existing Eye to accomplish that, and would require him to clearly establish this as his objective from the very start. The other, and this is another rather odd one, would be to expand it to permit the daemon primarch to do more of his dirty work for him. Something which would work against his character established both in prior codices and the more recent novels.

If they really want to work with Abaddon as the main foe, they really need to rethink how he is used on here. They need to decide upon whether they want him to be a real threat, and how they want to implement the elements building up to here rather than just throwing them in, and actually make use of the ideas they have kept for decades. If he's possibly discarding them, then fine, go ahead and do that but please give him a definitive reason as to why he's doing this.

Ages New and Old

This one could have also been called "Greyfax vs Celestine" but this is an analysis, not a court case on the subject of grimdark. 

One of the big running themes in this on the Imperial side of things is how Celestine's presence affects the Imperial troops. While I won't get into some of the more questionable lore related issues surrounding her existence - mostly in the hope we'll see them answered later on down the line - the impression here is that she's a direct extension of the Emperor's will, almost akin to an Imperial daemon. It's an interesting twist to be sure, as it's an old concept Games Workshop has been toying about with for years. Often these sorts of things would show up in minor ways to such as in Execution Hour where a particularly religious pilot keeps hearing voices or suggestions that there's a threat in the vessel's cargo hold, or Larkin's hallucinations in Gaunt's Ghosts. Even the more blatant examples found withing the codices tried to downplay the more supernatural elements, so to have them show up in full force is quite interesting indeed.

Obviously, however, the Imperium has been built upon a healthy skepticism of anyone lobbing about psychic powers without a Commissar's gun to their head. So, by having an Inquisitor who has been locked away from the rest of the galaxy for years questioning her, there are opportunities to explore divinity and faith, right? Well, not if you're this book. Greyfax here is a potentially competent character who seems to have gone full Inspector Javert. 

Upon seeing Celestine, she immediately starts to see her as a possible threat and subtle sign of corruption. Obviously, something could be made of her divine powers and abilities, and her influence over others, as a daemonic trait but the handling here is so ham-fisted that it becomes an utter joke. What we just end up with is Greyfax yelling that Celestine is a heretic as the Saint does nothing but fight Chaos over and over again. She repeatedly sides with Celestine to fight Chaos as well, so by the end it looks like nothing more than a petty power play than anything else.

Personally speaking, this looks as if it was supposed to be a kind of commentary upon the nature of the Imperium. The fact it's suspicious and paranoid to the point where it will turn upon its own saviors and perhaps the changing nature of the galaxy. It could even be an argument that some of the older institutions, the ones which have done as much harm as good, need to be forcibly changed to ensure the Imperium's survival. That or, as the case often is with such settings, that the left hand inadvertently ends up fighting the right. It is something that the story needs to deal with as the clock ticks closer and closer to midnight, so having two characters representing those aspects isn't a bad idea. We just need it to be a little more than this:

"You're a heretic!"
"... I just killed an entire Company of Death Guard and prevented our lines from breaking. Oh, and I just stabbed Abaddon!"
"You're still a heretic!"

It admittedly doesn't help that so much of this also hinges upon the vague mention of prophecy and a divine will as well. This was likely done to exaggerate the conflict, but the book doesn't handle the idea of mysteries all that well at all. It overexposes them, doesn't leave enough hooks to keep you directly interested, and tends to stop just before things get going. So, it's not so much a moment which hints at something leaving you desperate to know the answer as it is starting a topic and then failing to finish it. You know things are especially bad when that links directly into the eldar and has a full Warhost coming out of left field to set up the new book, AKA the sort of folks the Emperor was looking to oust from power.

If the story really wanted to better examine this or consider the implications of this stuff, once again they could have done with spacing things out and looking into past works. Many of the Imperial Armour volumes had major and minor conflicts between Imperial forces over tactics or doctrines without entering the kind of sheer plot enforced idiocy found here. The Anphelion Project saw an astartes-Inquisition-Radical Inquisition conflict spinning though most of the story, one of which was extremely indirect and only unveiled at the very end. The Siege of Vraks saw another Inquisitorial debate and political feuding causing problems for the reinforcements heading to that world, and the Badab War speaks for itself. However, what was different was that it took great pains to show the reasoning behind each side and at least to somewhat justify their points. There were no direct strawmen to be found here or ill meaning jabs made towards any particular faction involved. Instead it seemed to say "This is why they are at one another's throats, here's their reasoning, now watch how it influences the story," rather than "You're a heretic!"

A Broader Scale

This is another odd one which Warhammer 40,000 has always had a few issues with. Well, at least beyond the novels at the very least, anyway. The battle here was simply too small and doesn't offer enough to really reflect how monumental a war this truly was. Now, this tale was better than most in many, many regards. The ground based conflict? There were many minor details from regimental names to individual figures to help reflect the sheer scale of the battle. The ferocity of the combat itself? Fantastically told over and over again, avoiding the issue of being completely limited to just a few tabletop models at a time. The space conflict? Actually referenced and brought up several times, and playing a key part in the ending.

So, what's the problem here exactly? Well, that's simple: This focused only upon Cadia.

If you actually look at Cadia itself, you might note it's usually referred to as the "Cadian Gate" as you've seen a few times now in this article alone. This wasn't just a battle for one world, it was a battle for an entire solar system. The problem is, while the book did bring up multiple locations, situations and even a few secondary wars, it never truly moved outside of Cadia itself. Far, far more needed to be done in order to properly reflect the wars being fought across a multitude of worlds at a time, or even the sheer number of astartes involved here. While there were a solid number of major additions in places which did help to broaden things out, it's still a far cry from the sheer number of chapters actually involved in the fighting. 

The only real reflection of the actual scale of the battle is seen ironically in one of the army pages these reviews so often complain about. You know the ones, where it's the same image of a single solider re-coloured over and over again. Well, in this case it was one of the much better ones, with one marine for each chapter with the odd notification as needed. However, this is the only time most of them are mentioned. We never see any of them past this save for a few fleeting mentions of First Founding companies, and even those situated around the Eye of Terra don't show up. 

Say what you will about the previous attempt to show this war, it was definitely flawed and it certainly had its issues. With that said though, it had a firmer grasp on the sheer scale and monumental desperation of the conflict going on about it, with a multitude of minor stories being added to help further focus upon this point. Even all these years on, I can personally recall the White Scars fighting repeated skirmishes against the Black Legion before being forced into a last stand, and the Iron Knights waging a war on a horrifically corrupted world. In this case, while we do get such moments, as they're all focused upon Cadia it just looks as if only this world matters and the others could just be skipped entirely.

As a further note, it's also quite irksome that little mention was made at all of other reinforcements rushing towards the sector. The big one, quite early on, was most of the fleet surrounding Terra refusing to budge. Sure, they're a reserve force, but with things as desperate as they are at Cadia, surely they would need to be sent in to help prevent a second Siege of Terra. Even beyond that, what about the multitude of other worlds and factors surrounding this area? There are at least a dozen major Imperial Guard planets, First Founding astartes homeworlds and Mechanicum planets in the nearby sectors. Couldn't the book at least show a bit more scale and focus upon delivering a longer war by having them show up partway through?

This sort of thing was why I personally did praise the inclusion of the in-universe texts here. While they did not directly contribute to furthering the plot, they helped to better establish the atmosphere, the war itself and the idea of something bigger being out there. When there's a distress signal sent requesting further reinforcements and Cadia's abrupt fall, the effectiveness of its simple statement and well executed in-universe style helps play towards the desperation. Even if it's adding nothing directly to the battle itself, it's usually enough to add a bit more flavour to the core text. A good comparison to this would be the astropathic transmissions sent out by the trapped Imperial forces during the Anphelion Project. It doesn't directly add anything to the story and it's nothing which couldn't be skipped over, but it serves as a reminder of how increasingly doomed the expedition itself is. Could it have been executed better here? Certainly, and if it was to be brought back I would argue it could have been done to enhance a few oddly vague points the story did not expand upon, such as the mysterious stasis capsule the Mechanicus end up recovering.

Anyway, those are just a few key points I personally feel that Fall of Cadia needed to improve upon, and the next Gathering Storm needs to take to heart. While I will still argue that this book is worth buying on the merits of its story despite its flaws, it wasn't quite the smash hit we all wanted, or the massive conflict we needed. Perhaps, with a little more trial and error, we might see a truly great story driven rulebook once again.


  1. why cant they just kill abaddon , hes been garbage for like forever . Everytime they try to make him somewhat of a threat they just add failures to his pile of failures , how can the imperium even lose a planet to this idiot shows they are even more stupid

  2. Put simply a book which should have at last given Abaddon a real victory to his name makes him look like an idiot who only wins by rage quitting.

    Who on earth thought that rather than just having the Blackstone Fortress get to show its might, and making Abaddon look cool, they should rather have Phalanx anticlimactically kill a weapon from the War in Heaven and then use it as an asteroid.

    Hey Abaddon, you know who else has used this strategy before? Orks. But they didn't sacrifice a millennia old super weapon to do it, they just used a moon.

    Until GW is willing to let anyone other than Loyalist Space Marine Characters actually look competent their bad guys feel horrible dumb.

  3. Perhaps what I find strangest about this is what their endgame here is. So the warp's going to grow, and grow, and grow, and eventually it'll swallow the galaxy without much chance of stopping it that I can see.
    But why does Abaddon want this? Even if he just wanted Cadia gone, destroying the pylons on other worlds doesn't help much, they wouldn't have done anything (that I can see anyway) until the warp reached them, and I thought ADB always wrote Abaddon as somebody who wanted the Galaxy for himself and his Legion, not somebody who would just give it up for the Chaos Gods (and before this book, that was the main difference between him and somebody like Archaon).

    Basically what I'm getting at is that Abaddon fucked himself over, but I guess he's fine with it?