Horus Heresy: Whose Legion Is It Anyways?

In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. It’s the 41st Millennium and the Adeptus Astartes, loyal servants of the Holy Emperor, are separated into Chapters which derive nearly all aspects of their personality from single, overarching tropes. Their opponents, the Chaos Space Marines, have put on their warp-fueled sorting hats, been assigned their starter god, and spent 10,000 years in and out of the Eye of Terror. Over that time they have seemingly devolved, going into battle with a minimal assortment of units and fighting exclusively in the manner of warfare that most pleases their dark gods.


The Emperor vs. Horus
The Emperor faces down the Warmaster Horus. Credit: Games Workshop

The galaxy is split: 18 Legions (plus a number of allies) wage war to dethrone or secure the Emperor of Mankind who is most definitely 110% not a god (you can even ask him). These massive legions have specialties, to be sure, but they excel in all manner of warfare, utilizing a variety of wargear that the Inquisitors and Chapter Masters of tomorrow enact crusades to recover. 

Joking aside, I write this article as a call to action, a challenge, and a reminder to all that the Horus Heresy is a setting that allows for a much more diverse range of army building and narrative storytelling than what initially meets the eye. Yes, World Eaters are already feeling the call of the Eightfold Path, the Dark Angels already love telling (or not telling) secrets, and the Blood Angels sure do love Blood. Again, yes, the games you play will often have marines painted one color fighting marines painted another. But in exchange for cutting out the much-loved xenos factions found in Warhammer 40,000, the Horus Heresy as both a game and a setting sacrifice faction breadth for faction and narrative depth. 

So What?

Over the last 18 years, Games Workshop’s Black Library has created an epic tour de force of storytelling with over 80 novels further supported with countless short stories, novellas, and often ignored (go try them out) audio dramas. Reinforced by Forge World, and more recently Games Workshop’s Specialist Games Studio, the much loved Black Books and Campaigns of the Age of Darkness series have resulted in a setting that is nothing short of massive. Depending on who you ask, this is either a pro or a con, but I lean heavily on the side of it being a “pro.” Either way, even if it isn’t your cup of tea when an individual story ends with minimal impact to the larger narrative, a tie-in to 40K, or just one of Fragments that Abnett made sure to include throughout The End and the Death, they absolutely create loose strings that us hobbyists can pull on in developing our own armies. 

Ultimately, your army and (or) its legion is just that, yours. While primarchs tend to have “their way” of doing things and we often see that version of a legion, there is absolutely no requirement to build your own army in a similar way. In fact, the novels give plenty of examples of the legionnaires existing or fighting in a style which is close to the exact opposite of what their genesire would consider ideal. 

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

In my own army’s case, while I’m sure Angron loves his chain axes and taking the most direct path to try them out, I often wonder how the World Eaters’ War Hounds waged war before the implantation of their Butcher’s Nails and what the Hounds would have been if Angron wasn’t so…. angry. What would happen if a company of War Hounds were seconded to a Rogue Trader Expeditionary Fleet just prior to Angron’s discovery? Where would they have come from? What would their personality be like without their primarch? What would they do once they returned to Imperial Space at the onset of the Horus Heresy? Would they rejoin their legion and fight with those who they once called brother? Would they be willing to unite with their primarch? Or would they be disgusted with what has become of their legion, and initiate a quest to eradicate their traitorous kin?

I figured out the answer to those questions and I present to you the Black Hounds. A War Hounds (World Eaters / Black Shield) Recon Company (more on these at a later date). 

war hounds recon
thank you @danart_th for the rendition of my hounds!

Creating a Narrative

So what does this mean for you? And where should you go to do the same? I won’t have all the answers, but let me give some ideas and share some places where I’ve found interesting hooks to inspire. We aren’t here to talk about my Legion; we are here to talk about yours!

The Horus Heresy Novels

Like many, I have consistently entered and reentered this hobby due to the Black Library Novels. I started reading the Heresy books at the start of COVID and in three years, I had read 54+ books, catching up to the Siege of Terra once Echoes of Eternity came out. Also like many, I entered the setting with a lot of preconceived notions from 40K. I thought Word Bearers were boring, and Ultramarines were (and realistically do become) the flavorless version of all the chapters that I found interesting as a kid flipping through all the 3rd edition codices. But then I read The First Heretic, Know No Fear, and Betrayer and suddenly my eyes opened. Throughout my reading of the Heresy series I found situations where I didn’t want to just play one or two legions, I realized that I would enjoy building, painting, and playing an army for all of them.

What I found especially interesting throughout the series though, were the examples of characters and units that totally flipped your expectations of what a legion was. They have the right ingredients, but apply the characteristics of their legion in a way that really gets the gears turning and make me wonder “what can I do with this.” Other times you just see unique formations of a legion that again, leave you surprised or simply struck with inspiration.

Examples include (some obvious and some more obscure):

  • Barthusa Narek – The Word Bearer Vigilator who hates his primarch and what his legion has become. Loyalist-ish Word Bearers? Sign me up. 
  • The Denial Companies – Ragtag combinations of the surviving loyalist legionnaires during the final act of the Siege of Terra. A great way to justify Shattered Legion army comprising legionnaires outside of the Salamanders, Raven Guard, and Iron Hands. 
  • Alastor Rushal – The Raven. A traitorous member of the 19th Legion who joins forces with the Night Lords. He even becomes a member of the Kyroptera. There isn’t a ton of lore out there on him but that’s not the important part. What I enjoy is what he represents as a one-off member of a larger legion’s force who now fights against his own. Very similar in this way to Revuel Arvida, a Thousand Son who joins the White Scars and goes on to do some pretty epic things. Rushal and Arvida both give great justification for when you want to include a centurion in your army that doesn’t totally align with the rest of your force’s theme. World Eater Vigilator anyone?

realSnice's Vigilator
realSnice’s Black Hounds (War Hounds/World Eaters) Vigilator

Rites of War and Warlord Traits

If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading the flavor text of the various Rites of War and Warlord Traits belonging to the legions that you are not immediately interested in playing. Some of these include real gems that let you help shift your army play style to match a theme which falls outside of its default interpretation. 

Top of mind is the really neat Thousand Sons – Eidolon of Suffering which basically is what happens when someone with zero psychic potential is surrounded by a bunch of wizards. He feels shame and rage turning them into melee monsters whenever someone casts a spell around them. I love it. 

The Emperor’s Children and Sons of Horus have their Loyalist Warlord Traits which let you channel Istvaan 3 (and its survivors) while the Ultramarines, Blood Angels, and Raven Guard have really interesting traits that turn the “Good Boys” into 100% baddies. But while all of these are neat and have some cool game play interactions, what I enjoy is how they impact your army’s theme and the hobby potential alongside it (more on that later in subsequent articles). 

For some non-legion locked examples, while I think Pride of the Legion can fit with just about any force, my Recon World Eater example used above is truly a super-fun way to flip the narrative of your favorite legion. I fully welcome and encourage you to pick the less “optimal” or classic example of your legion and how they wage war. One idea that I’ve been really thinking about is a Raven Guard Brethren of Iron list. Set post-Istvaan, Corax and his sad boys decide to wake up all their locked away and not-so-sneaky toys out of both desperation and a complete willingness to entirely annihilate their foes.

Loyalist Sons of Horus flee from the Emperor’s Children at Goonhammer Open Horus Heresy 2022

Filling in the Gaps – What Isn’t Explicitly Stated?

So at this point you may be saying: “Okay nerd, you read the books. So what?” Well now it’s time to put on our thinking caps and fill in the gaps, asking the questions and finding answers for the things that the books don’t tell us. It is in this way that you absolutely can create something that is “your own” while still being loyal to the narrative and universe. 

Post-Heresy, we know the legions fracture as the second founding begins. With this in mind we can assume with high confidence that significant portions of any legion fit into the cultures of their soon to be founded successors. Even third founding chapters likely have significant heritage in their respective legions and I find it very reasonable to create a narrative for your Heresy Era force to align with them. In my case, I’ve always been interested in the Charnel Guard who originate from Dominion Zephon’s High Host. Leaning into the gothic, vampirism aesthetic for a Heresy Era force is definitely something that is hinted at, but not outright shown in the books and with ADB’s afterward in Echoes of Eternity, I am 100% confident in and one day intend to (give me a Destroyer ROW please GW) build a force in this direction. 

Similarly, we know that there is a near limitless number of orders inside of the Dark Angels. As such, pick a theme, a specialization, or a favorite unit, dig in and build an army around it. Dark Angel monster hunters in particular scratch a special itch in my opinion. Or perhaps a company that resides on the edge of space waiting for the Ranga to show their face again or another similar threat. 

While I would say that traitors have fewer examples in this fashion due to a less-structured holiday in the Eye of Terror, in the absence of clarity you have more leeway to move your own force and its narrative in any direction you’d like. I would lean heavily into allied detachments as a traitor and use dark mech or demons to provide character to a late heresy themed force. Alternatively crack open your favorite CSM codex from editions long past and look for some inspiration. It may not be explicitly stated but for a Chaos Space Marine to exist in 40k, they (or their peers) likely existed in 30k. What is different 10,000 years later? What is the same? 

@gowarhead ‘s Word Eater Void Assault company in the thick of it

Wrapping Up

So in conclusion, all I can do is challenge the Horus Heresy fans out there. Choose your narrative and have fun with it. That next time you are planning an army, don’t do statistical analysis of which heavy weapon choice is the most efficient. Don’t think about the term “meta.” Consider chainsword tacticals instead of the better chain bayonets and lean into that objectively bad but narratively-interesting option. Even better, take that choice and win games with it; you’ll feel a lot better and so will your opponent. Pick the Inductii that have a near useless special rule; I can guarantee that a 20 man block of marines at 200 points will still be frustrating for your opponent. 

Or don’t, and take advantage of that 10 man lascannon squad. But at the very least, try to justify its existence in your army. Perhaps forgo the techmarine or master of signals that seems to often include a Heavy Support Squad as it’s honor guard. The Horus Heresy is at its best when two opponents clash with thematic, (well) painted armies, and can enjoy the chaos that is the Age of Darkness. Simply put, what I want you to do is to accept my challenge and create some chaos of your own. 

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