Our dive into retro Dark Angels codexes is starting to catch up to my actual experience playing Dark Angels. I didn’t quite make it in time for this one, but next year, when we do Goonhammer 2007, I’ll be able to speak to the contents without having to make it up as I go along. You’ll also get to see me melt the hell down about Storm Shields.
Third Edition is the first one that looked anything at all like the current game. Most of the Xenos races existed at this point – Eldar and Orks had been around, but in its long lifespan 3rd introduced the T’au Empire (simply called “Tau” in those days) and fleshed out the Necrons and Tyranids. It was the first modern edition of 40k, and the framework established here would creak on, sagging under the weight of expansions, until the end of 7th edition, when we got a hard reboot going into 8th.
Parts of it have survived even longer. This book is almost unrecognizable compared to a modern Codex – it’s 24 pages, softcover, and almost entirely in black and white, a far cry from a modern jewel-like object of wonder – but what survived of the structure is that this is, in all but name, a modern Codex Supplement.
Here’s the thing: there’s very little here that’s interesting in either a historical context or on its own merits. The 2002 Chaos Space Marines book was an all-timer. It’s a foundational text in Warhammer, and led to an explosion of interest in Chaos that never really abated. The Necrons had their first real codex, and were introduced as a 100% new model range with 90% new lore. Adding an entire new faction happens, at best, once an edition, and Codexes like CSM 3.5 are a once-in-a-lifetime event that will resonate with players long after the rules in the book are no longer valid. Rob did a great job articulating the impact the book had and, with Mike, did the same for Necrons.
Compared to that, the Dark Angels codex from 2002 is a pamphlet. It’s a stopgap, something to update part of Angels Of Death to the new edition, that would be of interest only until it was refined and updated in the next new edition. I’m hard-pressed to think of anything unique about it, that holds up after 20 years: Deathwing and Ravenwing armies were already there in 2nd, and Belial and Sammael (at least by name – there is a generic “Grandmaster of the Ravenwing” in here, with his custom speeder, but no jetbike) wouldn’t appear until later. At the time this was a fine book, and I’d be lying if I said that Forty Terminators wasn’t a big part of why I got into Dark Angels in the first place, but this didn’t change anyone’s life. It didn’t have enough impact to reshape the game even at the time, let alone twenty years later.
I still like this book – I had fun flipping through it, and it has a few options I wish had survived to the present day, like doubling-up on heavy weapons in 5-model Terminator squads – but I didn’t start building lists with it, like I do every time I crack open 3rd edition Necrons or Tau. It sure is A Warhammer Forty Thousand Codex, Circa Two Thousand And Two, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all it is. I love Dark Angels, but I’m actually disappointed that the first T’au Empire (they were just called Tau back then) codex was released in 2001, because I think that’s a far more interesting artifact than this one, and there’d be more to mine from it.
I could sit here and show you all the things – and there aren’t many: like I keep saying, this is 24 pages including the credits page, pictures of models, and art – in the book, but the motif for every single one would be that they ported a second edition rule to third, and it would be further refined and elaborated upon in fourth. You’ve seen it all before (or after), in some form or fashion. Warhammer has never had a living rulebook or anything of the sort, but with the benefit of hindsight this entire book is just a snapshot of things in the middle of evolving.
I’m going to get out of my wheelhouse for a second here and talk about animation, where we have the notion of keyframes and inbetweeners. Key frames are the important bits – where a pose is struck or movement begins and ends – and inbetweeners are just there to smooth over the differences between keyframes in order to trick your dumb lizard brain into seeing continuous motion where there are just static pictures being swapped out quickly. If you freeze-frame Optimus Prime when he’s half-truck and half-robot, and that’s basically what this codex is. It may be interesting to see one of the missing links between Angels of Death and the 9th edition version of the army, generally speaking, but I don’t think this is a particularly unique link in its own right. If old books are screenshots from Transformers, this is one of the weird inbetweeners where Prime’s arms are the wrong size or bent all fucked up. It’s not even a keyframe, not an inflection point that holds up to scrutiny.
It’s impossible to tell when an army “peaked”, at the time when it’s peaking. A local maximum is only apparent after the next book arrives and isn’t as good, and until Warhammer is done and dusted we’ll never know when the absolute highpoint was. What we can know is that this isn’t it. It is, again, a serviceable book, just not something that stands out decades later. Given the design constraints of the time, I don’t want to disparage it.
Hell, I thought I was doing well back in 2002, myself. I was in college, I’d just met Rob and a few other people that I’m still friends with, and was just beginning to get into Warhammer. Within a year or so I’d purchase my first models – a single metal Terminator in a blister pack, and a box of Cadian Kasrkin – and even paint a couple of them. At the time it seemed like I was on a track that was going quite well, but then the most exciting things I could get my head around were someone bringing rum to our Friday hangouts (we just watched Commando in dorm rooms every weekend) and having enough money for food. I didn’t even feel the weight of being a dirtbag, and I didn’t clock my own low expectations because I didn’t know any better. I was free in a way I can’t even imagine now, but what was the point? Sure, I could get in the car and drive anywhere I wanted to without having to justify myself, but with no money and a burgeoning alcohol problem, why bother? I didn’t have a career yet, and it would be another fifteen years before I’d even meet my lovely Muscle Wife. The event horizon of my life didn’t go much further than graduating and getting a job, and if I’d been told that I’d be writing this for Goonhammer 20 years down the road I wouldn’t be able to process it: either because it seemed too cool to be real or, in a different sort of mood that only the young and dumb can really afford to indulge, that it would take so long to get there.
In retrospect I’m what you could call a late-bloomer, in that I did a lot of very stupid things and didn’t get my act together until sometime in my early 30s. If all my memories from the early 2000s seem regrettable at worst and simply boring at best, that doesn’t mean I wish they’d never happened, just that I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on them. I did the best I could at the time, and while now I’m kind of amazed that that was all I could manage, it turned out to be, in hindsight, sufficient.
So it is with the Dark Angels in 3rd. It did what it needed to do, in order to get where it needed to be. Dark Angels in 9th were shaping up to be the thing we’d all been waiting for, a variable Type Of Guy that had more personality than just “owns motorcycle”, until the murderer’s row of codices to follow (starting with Drukhari and continuing to the present) really took the wind out of their sails, but it is what it is. They had their moment, and there are good builds in the current book, as I’m sure there were in the old one. I’m grateful for it even if the Reign of Terror was cut short. Maybe that was as good as it ever gets, and it’s all downhill from here. We can’t truly know that the moment has passed until it does, and by then it’s too late.
I guess I should talk about the actual book a little bit.
The top of the masthead lists the primary author as Jervis Johnson, and there’s additional text from Gav Thorpe. Absolute kings, both.
I know in our 2nd edition review I spent some time ragging on how jank the game was back then, but I hope it also came across that I have insane respect for what they pulled off. No, it wasn’t perfect, or even very good, by modern standards, but the point is that those standards didn’t exist yet. Third edition, in fact, is largely what created them. It would strain at the seams and eventually have to be put down, but the core ideas of the game that were invented in third would carry on until the hard-reboot at the top of eighth.
The foundation of what we have now was laid in the 80s, of course there were iterations along the way that didn’t get all the way there. Tabletop gaming didn’t spring forth fully-formed from the forehead of James Workshop, they had to work at it. Comparing their trajectory to medieval paintings where no one could apparently draw an accurate picture of a dog to save their lives, it seems like incredibly rapid progress. Third edition is still recognizable as Warhammer as it is played today, and this book from 2002 would still have been technically playable in 2017.
It even still feels somewhat like Dark Angels. The ‘wings are here, via Force Organization Chart manipulation, as was the style at the time. Deathwing squads can be taken as Troops, Elites, Fast Attack, or Heavy Support choices, the army has to be led by the Grandmaster of the Deathwing (this would later become Belial, but not yet), and Land Raiders could be Dedicated Transports. In a Ravenwing army, you had to take Generic Unnamed Sammael and the other HQs had to be on bikes, but Bikes were Troops, Attack Bikes were Heavy Support, and Land Speeders were Fast Attack (that last one is actually where they already were). Allies were banned, Ravenwing units had a 6++ Jink save, and nobody was allowed to fall back.
If I’d asked you to guess what the army rules were, based on a cursory reading of the state of Warhammer at the time, and the modern books, you’d probably have guessed most of these.
I always think the most interesting thing about these old books is how little has changed. None of these relics work quite the same way, and they’ve been tweaked around or removed entirely in every edition along the way, but the core ideas were there all along, and it’s fun to see how things have been re-interpreted in every edition.
Lion El’jonson’s hat, the Lion Helm, is still around, and it’s still a 4++ bubble. 3” in this iteration, and applies to friendly and enemy models. The Sword of Secrets is a S6 power sword. It basically keeps that statline until 9th. Both of these are Grandmaster-only, which is neat if you want to make your own instead of using Azrael.
The Book of Salvation is fun. It’s a Holy Relic – defined by Codex: Space Marines as a once-per-game +1 attack aura out to 2d6 inches – but if the bearer dies things get wet and wild. The book hits the ground, and any Dark Angel that gets near it has to pick it up. Until they do, all Dark Angels get +1 WS, ignore intractable, and become Stubborn. If that sounds like something you might consider dropping on purpose, well, here’s what happens if you haven’t picked it up by the time the game ends: you lose. That’s it, full stop. Given that this edition still used variable game length, it is playing with extremely dangerous fire to drop this bad boy. I would simply not use it.
The Cup of Retribution is another Holy Relic, with the same base rules (the aura thing, not the “you lose if you drop it” thing), except that you have to stand still before you can use it, I guess to prevent all the Retribution from sloshing out. The Watchers In The Dark opened up a can of whoop-ass and poured it into this big fancy mug, and you’re gonna be in big trouble with them if you spill any, buster.
Asmodai’s Blades of Reason can be used by non-Asmodai Chaplains, and are worth d6 VPs for stabbing people. The catches are that you can’t die before the battle ends, only get the d6 VP if you roll a 6 on another d6 beforehand, and also they can’t be used on Tyranids or Necrons. I do not miss the opponent-specific army rules. These things suck.
Finally, we have to talk about flags. The Standards of Devastation, Fortitude, and Retribution are all Sacred Standards, which is from the main book. These do two things that will make no sense to modern players. The first is more outrageous, but easier to explain: if the bearer is killed in close combat, the model who killed them gets to take the standard, and they get the bonus instead, until they’re killed, and the next person gets to take it from them. As for what that bonus is, it adds +1 to Combat Resolution for Dark Angels within 6” of it. Combat Resolution was how assaults used to work. After everyone had fought, you added up the wounds inflicted by each army, applied any weird modifiers in your rules (for having a flag, etc) and the person with fewer points was the loser. They got to take morale checks and maybe fall back a random distance. The winner could then advance a random distance, and if they rolled well enough to catch up to the loser, they would simply murder them. That’s it, your unit lost combat by taking 1 wound to 0, and they ran you down like a dog. Go straight to hell. Marines’ big deal with And They Shall Know No Fear was that they would not die, and would instead be back in combat.
All of that said, the Dark Angels standards have their own once-per-battle bonuses on top of that. Devastation is an early form of Overwatch: in your opponent’s charge phase, one unit within 6” of the standard can shoot. It rules. Fortitude is, similarly, an early form of Steady Advance, and lets one unit move and shoot rapid fire weapons as if it had remained stationary. It’s fine. Retribution lets a unit re-roll all hits in combat, which is an early form of basically every single character in the game at this point. It’s good.
You get your mixed-weapon Terminator squads, your attack bikes attached to regular bikes, a psychic power to force morale checks on 3d6, and very little else of note. For the most part, this just directs you to refer back to the Space Marines codex. Literally the entire Heavy Support section is just a list of references to the main book. Again, no surprises. It is a functional codex, yes it is.
We get a sizable painting section, including a How To Paint Everything on Land Speeders and some glamour shots of a bunch of models that aren’t sold anymore, plus also Azrael, who very much is. As with Angels of Death, this is my favorite part of the book. It’s the only section printed in color, and the ‘eavy Metal paint jobs still hold up, in their own wonky high-contrast way. It was the style at the time, the materials weren’t at the standard we’re used to, and on a technical level these still whip.
There’s not a lot of fluff in here. A few sidebars, and one short piece of fiction about Asmodai committing murder on a Fallen.
Asmodai, Azrael, and Ezekial are here, but Belial and Sammael are not. Well, Sammael kind of is, as a generic “Master of the Ravenwing” with a special Land Speeder, but we also get Veteran Sergeant Namaan. He’s mostly just a guy, but he’s a sergeant in a scout squad that has been inducted into the friggin’ Deathwing. He also no-sells one hit in combat and you have to use night fighting rules shooting at him (Stealth suits used to have this too – this is back before dice modifiers were widely-used tech).
A Mission, Why Not?
I wish more books had this. Death By Moonlight: The Second Assault on Koth Ridge is a historical mission where Sergeant Namaan, who we just met, has been killed by Ghazkhull Thraka offscreen, and the Orks are about to piledrive a Dark Angels defense line into hell. The Orks (or whatever you’ve got – the rules allow for ahistorial match-ups) deploy along one table edge, with the Dark Angels (or, again, whatever you’ve got) along a ridge in the middle.
The Dark Angels can’t take a Master or Grandmaster, but the Orks are limited to Infantry, Dreadnoughts and Trukks – nothing bigger, and nothing Looted. Victory conditions are simple: the Orks win if they blast a 16” corridor across the table with at least one Ork, and no Dark Angels, in it. How this interacts with someone slipping on a banana peel and butterfinger-ing the Book of Salvation is both unclear and best not to consider.
The funniest thing to me is that this recommends a large table, and uses 5×4 as an example, which is both smaller than the usual size from 4th-8th edition, and just a few inches off from being the standard matched play size we all know today.
The mission itself looks pretty fun to play, and other than the lack of secondaries and sharply binary win condition, which was pretty standard back then, isn’t badly designed. The army restrictions are something that we don’t see in modern mission design, and for good reason: you couldn’t run this event at a tournament, because an Ork player who leaned into big vehicles might have to play down quite a few points. It’s not a good one by modern standards, but that’s not really a fair way to judge this. For what it is it’s neat, and with some tweaking I think it could work perfectly well in modern 40k.
Dark Angels, hell yeah.
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