Welcome to Horus Heresy Tactica, our series that provides a deep dive in a specific mechanic, interaction or aspect of play in Warhammer: the Horus Heresy.
Morale is a key component of victory in Warhammer: the Horus Heresy, and we’ll be talking about Falling Back and other morale mechanics more in the future, but for today we’re focusing in on one of the key new mechanics in this edition: Pinning. Of all the new elements introduced, Pinning is one of the hardest to peg down when you first begin playing. To start with it seems almost trivial, before solidifying into an oppressive force as you play a few games at the spiky end of it, and then rounding out into a more cohesive play experience as you learn how to deal with it. Today we’re going to try and speedrun you through this process, and also look at the best sources of pinning (and the worst) and see what’s worth it and what’s not.
What is pinning anyway?
Pinning is a special rule (page 244 Core Rulebook) that some weapons possess that provoke a pinning check if a target suffers one or more unsaved Wounds. The unit is then pinned if it fails a Leadership test after the firing unit has finished all their attacks. Once pinned, units are in trouble. They can’t Move, Run or Charge, and can only fire Snap Shots. However pinning only lasts until you’re locked in combat, Fall Back, or the end of the target unit’s next turn (we’ll come back to this).
This is, in many ways, like completely neutralising a unit for a full turn or more. It’s absolutely devastating, and that’s why it’s actually pretty hard to get to work – you have to inflict a wound, and then they have to fail that test. However, if you get it to work that unit is pretty much out of the fighting for a while, letting you focus your attention elsewhere.
Pinning doesn’t work at all on Vehicles, Cavalry, Daemons, Monstrous units and units with the Fearless rule (including, among other things, Automata, Dreadnoughts and Primarchs). This list pretty much means that pinning works on:
- Infantry that aren’t Fearless
- Armigers (that aren’t Fearless, though this is harder to pull off)
Now this may seem like a pretty slim list, but actually, of course, most of the unit entries in the Liber Astartes and Liber Hereticus are Infantry without Fearless. That makes it a hugely important rule that needs careful consideration.
Pinning relies on two things:
- an unsaved wound
- a failed Leadership test
Therefore the best way to get Pinning to go off is to maximise the chance of an unsaved wound, and to reduce the chances of your opponent passing their Leadership test. You only need a single unsaved wound, and the cheaper you can output shots that will do at least a single unsaved wound, and the worse you can make the Leadership test, the better. That means the Shell Shock rule, but also having units with Fear nearby and sniping out Sergeants or Independent Characters where possible.
One of the nastiest ways to use Pinning is as a reaction. If you pin a unit that’s charging you, the charge fails (this makes charging Librarians with Telepathy a fool’s errand). If you use Interceptor and pin a unit coming on from reserves that unit is pinned for the rest of their turn and all of their next turn (remember, pinning lasts until the end of their next turn). So a well-timed pin against a deep striking assault marine squad can leave it nearly helpless for two full turns. Pinning in a Return Fire reaction renders the original shots Snap Shots making them very ineffectual.
With this in mind, let’s have a quick look at the weapons that have the Pinning special rule. I’ve organised these into three categories depending on how good they are at getting an unsaved wound. Broadly this means ranking ap3 higher than ap4+, ap2 and 1 better than that, and rewarding rending, breaching and other rules that allow for ap2. Plus I try to take into account the Strength of the weapon, and how many shots it is likely to have in its environment (so roughly number of shots times the number of units in a minimum size squad). I also consider the Shell Shock rule, which worsens the Leadership on the pinning test, which makes it more likely to actually succeed.
We end up with…
Poor pinning weapons
- Kratos battlecannons firing HE shells
- Morbus bombards
- Incendiary ammunition for Quad launchers
- Grenade launchers firing Frag rounds
- Missile launchers firing Frag missiles
- Arcus missile launchers firing Pyrax warheads
- Cyclone missile launchers firing Frag missiles
- Volkite cardenelles
These weapons sure do have Pinning, but they’re not good at it. Lots of them are just too expensive for the results – you have much much more efficient ways of pinning enemy units. However, Frag grenades and missiles are just kind of sad – they don’t get many hits (the templates are pretty small), and their low Strength and poor AP means the chances of actually getting a wound are shockingly poor.
If you’re taking these weapons anyway, then it’s maybe worth going for pinning with them, but it’s not something to pick for pinning.
Middling pinning weapons
- Rotor cannons
- Punisher rotor cannons
- Splinter ammunition for Quad launchers
- Deathstorm missile launchers
- Aiolos missile launchers
- Volkite falconets
- Gatling blasters
- Macro-gatling blasters
- Mauler bolt cannons
- Castigator bolt cannons
- Vulcan mega-bolters
- Sonic destructors
Where, unsurprisingly, most of our options sit. A lot of these are very good at pinning but are enormously expensive (see: all the titan weapons) and so the chances of you buying into one for the pinning itself is slim. Deathstorm escapes the fate of its other mass missile brethren by just outputting so many shots, and the Rotor cannons are basically doing the same (but also get Shell Shock). It’s worth noting that 5 rotor cannons (a minimum size support squad) is not enough to reliably get an unsaved wound on marines, so you really want to bump to the magic number of 7, or even 10 for safety. That makes them expensive, and if it weren’t for the Shell Shock they’re be in the poor category.
Pulsar-fusils deserve a call out, because with S9 and ap2 they’re really very very good at getting that unsaved wound, but they don’t really do anything to capitalise on it and honestly if you’re shooting on at some infantry to try and pin them it’s probably not worth it.
Good pinning weapons
- Nemesis bolters
- Nemesis bolter wielded by a Vigilator
- Karacnos mortar batteries
- Telepathic Hallucinations psychic power
These are the real stars. Nemesis bolters wouldn’t get such a high rating if it weren’t for the fact that that Sniper means they can pick out Sergeants and so on from units, thus effectively reducing the chances of them passing the Pinning test. They’re also cheap, easily available, and can come on BS5 platforms with Infiltrate. Of course the weapon is best in the hands of a Vigilator, which gives it Rending (2+) and Shell Shock (1) for a truly impressive slash horrifying output.
Karacnos mortar batteries are a big silly weapon and would be overcosted if they didn’t have Shell Shock (3), which is absolutely bonkers. They put a huge pie plate down and they’re going to wreck things, and probably your opponent will fail that pinning test.
Finally the true hero, the master of pinning: Telepathic Hallucinations. This psychic weapon does no damage, but instead attacks with a bunch of dice and gives a +1 to the roll for each hit. That isn’t a debuff to Leadership so Inexorable and Stubborn do nothing and you’re on average giving a +5 to their roll, which makes passing it almost impossible. Frankly, unless your psyker blows themselves up they should be pinning an enemy unit every turn.
So we’ve seen what pinning does and what’s best at doing it, but: how do you defend against it?
Fearless is the best way, of course. If you have units that are fearless than can stride the battlefield unconcerned by such petty matters. Of course fearless is pretty rare as rules go, so that’s not always possible. Stubborn and Inexorable also help counteract the effects of Shell Shock.
Remember that units embarked in transports can’t be pinned, so keeping your easily pinnable units inside a metal box until you really need them is very important. This is especially true for those arriving from reserves – if you can avoid that pinning test, absolutely do.
Don’t make it easy for your opponent to snipe your sergeants out of your squads – put them in Artificer armour where you can, and don’t be tempted to just use them as a shield for the rest of the unit if you do. They’re a huge boost to your chances of staying in the fight.
Put Independent Characters with high Leadership in particularly vulnerable units. Choose Warlord Traits and other rules that provide Leadership buffs, and bring a Herald or Chaplain along. Stay the hell away from units that cause Fear.
Kill the units that are pinning you down. There’s a reason why taking out a sniper is so important in real world combat situations. So learn that lesson, don’t ignore that recon squad perched on top of a building, and actually throw some firepower their way. Sure, they might be only killing a single model each turn, but they’re potentially knocking that unit out of action and even, at the end of the game, preventing them from scoring.
Bring a Delagatus. They seem like the choice for small armies playing Zone Mortalis or such, but in fact they’re secretly an exceptionally powerful choice as your warlord. The reason being that they get their once per battle Rally the legion ability, which is the only way to clear pinning early. This makes them exceptionally valuable.
Pinning is a powerful new tool that can paralyse large sections of an army if it’s used well. But there are ways of fighting back, and the key one is to not underestimate it’s impact. Removing key pinning units is important, especially before bringing in reserves likely to suffer from their attention.