As you may have realised by now, Totally Worth It as a series is as much about forgotten or unjustly maligned gems of tabletop wargaming as it is about the formative moments in my personal hobby life. So today I would like to address what may have been the defining purchase of my younger hobby years. Today on Totally Worth It: The 40k second edition Codex Chaos.
Phew, where to start?
I already told you about my first contact with Warhammer 40k, and how it was completely unlike every other Sci-Fi setting I had ever heard about. Much of that would possibly still hold true for somebody getting into the hobby today, but there may be a number of differences, chief among them the way to get hold of the 40k background:
Back in the mid to late 90s, the Internet didn’t exist — or rather, it didn’t exist for me. Neither did repositories of 40k background like Lexicanum, or hobbyists discussing in detail the background of their particular army on boards like Throne of Skulls or Dakka. So if you wanted to learn the background of the 40k universe, GW’s own publications were pretty much the only way to go. And since each of those books came at a sizeable price, even back then, you can probably imagine that getting access to all of it at once was pretty much out of the question. So while it didn’t take me all that long to discover that Chaos Space Marines were one of the factions that most fascinated me, my first approach to them happened via a number of small individual glimpses:
I remember seeing a picture of the model for Kharn the Betrayer and thinking: “I wonder what that guy’s story is!” I remember reading my buddy Phil’s 2nd edition Codex Ultramarines (in english, no less) and stumbling upon that scene where Marneus Calgar’s prowess in battle earns him a salute from a World Eaters champion and being fascinated by that idea, even then. I remember discovering that there were such things as Plague Marines, the Thousand Sons, or Abaddon the Despoiler, but I knew the models long before I discovered their background or their significance in the lore. As a matter of fact, I would sometimes ask some of my buddies who had bought the models what those guys’ background was, and they’d shrug because they didn’t know.
So it was clear to me that I would need to find out the hard way: I needed to read up on these guys. So when the 3rd edition of Warhammer 40k was released, the Codex Chaos Space Marines was the second 40k book I ever purchased (soon after Codex Dark Eldar). And actually, the best way to start describing how momentous the sedond edition Codex Chaos was for my hobby life is to first talk about the 3rd edition Codex:
Back then, GW was following a policy of stripping down their Codices as much as they could for a while, making them as short and bare bones as they could be. That way, their reasoning went, they would be able to produce more of them in a shorter amount of time. They where right in this, but unfortunately, the books were worse for it.
To wit: I had hoped the CSM Codex to be a great introduction to an army I was fascinated with, but it barely gave me a taste: Sure, it contained basic informations about the Great Crusade, the Horus Heresy and the fall of the traitor Legions, and I lapped it all up eagerly. But it didn’t even begin to tap into the respective traitor legions’ rich lore. Even then, before all the HH novels, you just knew there had to be lots and lots of (potential) backstory to these guys: On a very basic level, they were just evil Space Marines, sure. But it went beyond that: They had rebelled. They had lost. They were 10,000 years old. What tragedy! What narrative potential!
Unfortunately, the 3rd edition Codex barely gave one short column of text for each of the original traitor legions. And – I kid you not – they even forgot the Word Beareres altogether! And what artwork there was was so small as to be pretty much insignificant.
Now a minimalist approach like that might have worked for the Dark Eldar (at least at first), seeing how they were a brand new faction with very little backstory in the setting. But for the Chaos Space Marines, it was a horrible idea: All the depth and tragedy fell by the wayside in favour of a very stripped down rulebook. The one thing about the Codex that has really managed to age rather gracefully (apart from the impressive cover artwork by Wayne England) is the ‘Eavy Metal section, featuring lots and lots of creative and interesting conversions:
As a matter of fact, this may also be the only section of the book that actually hints at what a compelling faction chaos can really be, showcasing one of the greatest aspects of the army: its versatility and the potential for customisation and conversion. The rest of the book seems more like an Excel spreadsheet, though. And a general fondness for old wargaming publications notwithstanding, I feel that it’s probably the weakest CSM Codex ever.
But back then, it was all I had to work with, so it had to be enough. I was immediately drawn to the World Eaters, since I have been a worshipper of Khorne ever since my WFB days, and there was a new plastic kit just coming out for the Khorne Berzerkers back then — how time flies: Almost twenty years later, and that same plastic kit is still available — in fact, I bought my last one some time last year…
Anyway, I kept plugging away on my own for a couple of years, and then, one day, discovered a copy of the second edition Codex Chaos at a comic book store. A quick glance made it clear that this was the book I had been pining for: Just skimming across the background for the traitor legions gave me more ideas and inspiration than the whole 3rd edition Codex. So I picked up the book in a heartbeat (and for a pretty penny, at that), hurried home and spent the next few days tugging into the background for my favourite 40k army. And with that, we finally arrive at our main subject, after a rather wordy introduction.
After the meagre 3rd edition Codex, nothing could have prepared me for the 2nd edition book. In fact, it still remains my favourite chaos army book ever. And even for somebody getting into the hobby today, it would still be an ideal place to get information on the traitor legions.
The book’s background section is simply fantastic: Each traitor legion gets about half a page of background, but the fluff is concise, well written and cuts straight to the heart of each legion. And even though the following years have seen the HH series flesh out more and more of the backstory, changing around some things while completely dropping others, very little of the background presented in the 2nd edition Codex has been completely invalidated by the newer material. It’s all there: The Word Bearers as the original traitor legion. The sundering of the World Eaters at Skalathrax. The Thousand Sons’ descent into mutation and madness, as well astheir subsequent death and rebirth at the hands or Ahriman. The duplicity of the Alpha Legion. It just goes on and on…
Sure, subsequent iterations of the fluff have added layers of complexity: The Word Bearers are a far bigger (and even more sinister) influence in the more recent material. The Alpha Legion’s allegiance has become far more ambiguous. But reading through the material in the codex still gives you a compelling and completely viable rundown of the traitor legions. And all the backstory and narrative potential isn’t merely being obliquely hinted at.
Of course it helps that the book is lavishly illustrated, featuring brilliant artwork by such luminaries as Mark Gibbons, Wayne England and, of course, John Blanche himself. Did you know JB actually did some World Eaters artwork at one point?
From haunting, Blanchian daemonworlds and Mark Gibbon’s quintessential Khorne berzerker art to Wayne England’s brilliantly evocative legion badges, the book is overflowing with cool artwork. Some of it may seem slightly goofy today, but it’s a great collection, with influences from the RT era still clearly evident, while the newer pieces would work flawlessly in a modern codex. In fact, one of John Blanche’s most iconic spreads was subsequently republished both in WD and the fourth edition codex:
Two pages full of crazy conversion and customisation ideas. And even though none of the bitz mentioned may be available any longer, this spread instantly tells you what building and painting a CSM army is about: It’s about giving it your all to make sure your legionaries actually look like the 10,000 year veterans they are! It’s about tweaking each model and going the extra mile, to end up with an army that is truly special and unique!
The ‘Eavy Metal section of the book shows all the available CSM models from the time and has a nice showcase for most of the traitor legions. As a matter of fact, the two page spread showing the World Eaters models available back then has more background for the legion than the 3rd edition book’s entire background section:
And, of course, there’s also advice on how to customise and convert your chaos models. This nicely complements John Blanche’s ideas, and I am still rather fond of some of the conversions shown in the 2nd edition Codex, even though miniature design has come quite a long way since then.
It’s also worth mentioning that there are no more conversions in today’s codices, which I think is a crying shame!
The book continues with an in-depth look at the most notorious champions of chaos, introducing characters like Abaddon the Despoiler, Kharn the Betrayer, Ahriman of the Thousand Sons and Fabius Bile. And it has to be said that some of the artwork featured in that section not only managed to blow me away back then, but is just as impressive today. Check out this piece of artwork depicting Fabius Bile.
Best version of the character ever, if you ask me!
And there’s more: A huge wargear section, not only featuring the rules for the different items but also containing interesting tidbits about the state of technology at the time of the Great Crusade (sadly, this – along with the rules section – is one of the parts of the book that have been invalidated by the newer fluff and material). A section about traitor chapters of the Adeptus Astartes, featuring the notorious Red Corsairs and – for the first time – their Lord, Huron Blackheart. There’s also a chunk of background about the Fallen Angels and Cypher. The book just goes on and on and lets you discover a thousand different and cool details about the servants of chaos.
Certainly one of the greatest things about the book is its sizeable appendix, though, providing you with rules for chaos cultists and traitorous planetary defense forces. And it even gives you rules for daemon world armies, eternally waging war in the Eye of Terror. This effectively allows you to use parts (or indeed the entirety) of your WFB chaos army in 40k games to represent the twisted armies of the Eye — a nice callback to the blending of WFB and RT that occured in the “Realm of Chaos” books of yore. The section also gives you information about the great four’s original daemon princes, along with corresponding rules.
In fact, this section is a perfect representation of what’s so great about the book in the first place: You get the feeling that Jervis Johnson and Andy Chambers just decided to throw in every cool idea they had, and to make as comprehensive a book about the ruinous powers as they could. Some of the rules may be experimental and unbalanced (in fact, the authors even specifically point this out with regard to the appendix). Some ideas may seem goofy nowadays (and, in all fairness, they were probably just as goofy back then). But the book is clearly a work of love, and that fact shows through on every page. Even the very last page of the book is used by the authors to impart yet more ideas for narrative games involving the forces of chaos. You cannot help but violently fall in love with a design philosophy like that!
So, where does that leave us in regard to the versions of the CSM Codex that came afterwards? As you may have gathered, the less said about the 3rd edition Codex, the better. The fabled “3,5 Codex” still stands tall as a fan favourite, because it allowed players to play each chaos legion with its own custom rules and wargear — however, this came at the price of making chaos armies somewhat unwieldy and frankly impenetrable for non-chaos players. The oft-maligned fourth edition codex, derisively called “Gav Dex” by some, went for a far more streamlined solution, alienating quite a few players along the way. Personally speaking, I rather liked the codex for its flexibility, and I think much of the criticism leveled at its authors is actually rather unfair (you can read my thoughts on the matter here, in case you are interested).
And the sixth edition codex? I like the book: It has great production values, and the rules set seems robust enough while retaining the flexibility of the last edition’s codex. But the legion specific background is back to one short column per legion, and that’s certainly not an improvement.
In all fairness, giving chaos players a book they are actually happy with may be an unsolvable task: A Codex to make every chaos player happy would probably have to be 500 pages long, feature full rules for each and every legion (and, as a consequence, probably cost 250 Euros). So I think Phil Kelly’s effort was probably the best possible compromise. The situation today is also far different from that in the mid-90s: With places like Lexicanum and the 40kWiki and publications like the BL novels available, you have all the background you might need at your fingertips at all times. There’s also a huge online community of hobbyists to discuss the background and fluff with. So today’s codices may actually no longer be requird to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to describing the background.
Still, the 2nd edition Codex Chaos still stands as possibly my favourite chaos army book ever. It delivers a fantastic amount of bang for the buck and is still just as good an introduction to the traitor legions now as it was back then. And even though the rules are no longer viable, the book is still a great puchase, just for the background section and the crazy amount of ideas on display! So if you’re a chaos player, and should find yourself in any position to pick this up, go for it: It’s still totally worth it!
So yeah, that was my rather wordy – and probably completely inadequate – love letter to one of my favourite GW publications ever, I guess. Provided you didn’t fall asleep in the first place, should you have anything to add regarding the book, or any feedback to this review, I’d be happy to hear from you in the comments section!
And, in any case, thanks for looking and stay tuned for more!