The Horus Heresy: Legion Overview – The Death Guard
The Space Marine Legions of the First Founding make up the core factions and conflict of the Horus Heresy. In this article – the fifth in our Legion Overview series – we turn the Auspex to Mortarion’s Reapers: The XIV Legion, The Death Guard.
“Of all the Space Marine Legions raised by the Emperor as part of his nascent Legiones Astartes, few had beginnings so glorious and yet ends as tragic and nightmarish as would befall the Death Guard… they were to become the very thing they had once fought so tirelessly against: inhuman, unrecognisable and soulless monsters of the dark – the very stuff of nightmares.”
The Death Guard – once the Dusk Raiders, or the Warlords of Dusk – are one of the original Traitor Legions who participated in the great purging on Isstvan III. In the 41st millennium they are famed for their allegiance to Nurgle, but it was not always this way. Once, they were the feared red right hand of the Emperor, and a force of Unity, led by an indefatigable Primarch who could not be stopped in the pursuit of victory. In this article, we’ll take a look at their origins, what they became, and how they play on the battlefield.
The Death Guard were one of the few Legions which had a distinct identity prior to being reunited with their Primarch – like the War Hounds, Imperial Heralds and War Born, they wore a different name once: the Dusk Raiders.
Like all other Legiones Astartes, the Death Guard were raised in the Unification Wars, primarily from the clans of Old Albia; a warlike, brutal people inhabiting soot-blackened fortress cities. This recruitment was, in part, a diplomatic move by the Emperor, as the Albians had been a fierce foe. By recruiting the cream of their male warriors, he nullified the risk of rebellion as the Great Crusade began and cemented a peace between the Thunder Legions and the Albian Parliament.
Newly born, the XIV Legion quickly found aptitude as heavy infantry assault specialists, famed for their survival and endurance. Their armour was typically grey, with a deep crimson right hand and shoulder pad; this symbolised their place as the “red right hand” of the Emperor of Mankind, and was an echo of their Old Albian heritage, which had used a similar motif.
As the XIV were sent from Terra to pacify the Sol system, they took on the name “Dusk Raiders”, due to their predilection for attacking at the fall of night when the gloaming would confuse and disorientate a foe; another throwback from Old Albia.
For eighty years, this continued… until Mortarion was found. Then, the Dusk Raiders died, and the Death Guard were born.
Mortarian had, in the same way as Angron, a terribly harsh upbringing as a Primarch. The planet he landed on – Barbarus – was a horrendous hellworld. Its planetary ecosystem was fundamentally hostile, full of primordial swamps and poisonous fogs, beset by acid rains and perpetual gloom.
Worse, Barbarus was ruled by foul xenos overseers; the charnel lords – giants in rusted armour who acted as petty godlings, ruling the benighted human masses who crowded the valleys below the poison clouds. These xenos were masters of necromantic sciences, creating vile golems of flesh and acid, using their human chattel as playthings for their amusements in great “reapings”.
Mortarion, unbelievably, was found and raised by the greatest of these xenos – The Pale King, a witch-lord of terrible power who gave the infant Primarch his name, and trained him to be a living weapon. Mortarion was exposed to untold nightmares as a youth. “Reapings”, poisonous fog, unspeakable experiments – all of them shaped his upbringing.
Finally, he realised that the humans below the corrosive fog-banks of the mountain holdfast where he was raised were his people, and that his “father” was a lie (as it happens, a grim echo of what was to come in his relationship with the Emperor).
Descending from the mountains and rallying the people of Barbarus, Mortarion used his two handed harvest scythe to bring the battle to the alien overlords of the planet. Years of warfare later, he led a people armed and armoured by his genius and indefatigable will to succeed – the first Death Guard, who won pyrrhic victory after pyrrhic victory. The “reapings” of the xenos lords quickly became battles which resulted in the overlords being routed and slaughtered, at a terrible cost in human lives.
Finally, the Emperor himself came to Barbarus. Yet, Mortarion did not embrace his gene-sire; instead, a pact was formed. If Mortarion could slay the last charnel overlord on Barbarus – his own “father” – then he would be left alone by the Emperor. If he could not, he would swear fealty to the Master of Mankind.
Mortarion tried, and Mortarion failed – the toxic fog banks of his former “father’s” fortress proved too much for him, sapping his strength and choking him as he made his ascent. The Emperor intervened, slaughtering the xenos brute, and claiming Mortarion for his own, reuniting him with his gene-sons.
And thus, the Dusk Raiders Legion were reshaped and reforged by their new master. They became the Death Guard, bleak and uncompromising warriors who cared little for the emblems of rank or honour, or even for keeping their wargear in good order. As long as a weapon fired, they cared little for its aesthetic. And thus they marched on the Great Crusade.
During the Heresy
“Decades of endless battle changed the Death Guard… panoply and traditions of the Dusk Raiders and the Officio Militaris erased in favour of Barbarus’ bleak creed of war.”
The Death Guard were one of the first Legions – along with the World Eaters and Emperor’s Children – to throw their lot into the rebellion and stand by Horus Lupercal.
Mortarion had great kinship with Horus; the Death Guard Primarch was a grim and driven individual who was forced, through his upbringing on Barbarus, to wear a bizarre breathing apparatus, which alienated him from his brothers. Horus and Konrad Curze looked past this, which meant Mortarion was more loyal to the Warmaster personally than he was to the Emperor himself. This bitter rivalry with the other Primarchs isolated Mortarion, and made him vulnerable to being swayed to a darker cause.
In addition, his First Captain, Typhon, had become corrupted by the Ruinous Powers early on, which allowed the infection of Warrior Lodges and similar corrupt philosophies from the Word Bearers to take root in the Legion. When combined with Mortarion’s hatred of psykers (despite being one himself) causing him to be further alienated from the Imperium, the scene was set for betrayal.
The Death Guard enthusiastically participated in both the scouring of their Loyalist elements on Isstvan III, and the Drop Site Massacre on Isstvan V. Ironically, despite being one of the original Traitors, the Death Guard were also the saviours of the Imperium, in a way.
Nathaniel Garro, a Loyalist Death Guard Legionary, famously took the Eisenstein through hell and back, escaping the Isstvan III purging and bringing word of the betrayal to Rogal Dorn. This early warning was crucial – it allowed the Imperium to gather its might, in anticipation of the rebellion to come.
As the Heresy progressed, the Death Guard were part of Horus’ main invasion force to Terra. However, tragically, the Legion would become becalmed in the Warp due to the misguided actions of First Captain Typhon, who slaughtered the Legion fleet’s “witch” navigators en route to Terra.
Nurgle took notice of this, and began to infect the Legion with Nurgle’s Rot and the Destroyer Hive as they lay trapped in the Empyrean. The very ships themselves began to decay, and the warriors inside rot and die. Mortarion, in desperation, offered himself and his Legion to Nurgle, and the Plague Marines were born.
By the time they reached Terra, they were a bleak parody of their former selves – corpulent, bloated, and infested with a myriad of diseases. Mortarion was a Daemon Primarch, and the Long War had begun.
Legion Special Rules
The Death Guard have the following Legion Rules, which reflect their grim and stoic style of warfare:
- Remorseless – Death Guard are immune to Fear and automatically pass Pinning tests.
- Sons of Barbarus – Death Guard models may re-roll failed Dangerous Terrain tests, and get Feel No Pain (4+) against Poison or Fleshbane rules, which cannot be combined with Feel No Pain from other sources.
- Intractable: When making Sweeping Advance tests, models with this rule reduce the roll by -1.
These rules do not require much further explanation, as they are basically self explanatory – Remorseless is excellent, as it makes your infantry very reliable, and reduces the efficacy of a lot of enemy special rules and Rites which can force Pinning checks. A surprising amount of things in the Horus Heresy cause Fear – from the obvious (Konrad Kurze) to the perhaps less memorable (Chaplains), so this can be helpful in a variety of situations.
Sons of Barbarus can be quite powerful when combined with certain units which you might not associate with Death Guard (bikes, for example, as they can mitigate risks of moving through terrain), and the Feel No Pain, while situational, is potent when it triggers. It is of particular use against Mechanicum, who often wield weapons with these special rules.
Intractable is, in the grand scheme of things, a relatively minor debuff.
Legion Special Equipment & Upgrades
The Death Guard have access to flavourful special equipment.
- Chem-Munitions – These allow the Death Guard to upgrade flamer weapons in squads or vehicles for free to have Shred and Gets Hot!. This is a trade-off which I think is well worth it – the chance of Gets Hot! causing a problem is vastly outweighed by the ability to reroll wounds from flamers, as typically these will land a lot of hits onto units which you can then much more easily convert into Wounds. This is a great upgrade to take in Zone Mortalis, as it also adds +1 Strength to these weapons as well.
- Power Scythes – A character or Independent Character with the Legiones Astartes (Death Guard) special rule who can take a power fist can exchange this for a power scythe instead, which is +1S, AP2, with the Reaping Blow special rule. This makes it -1 Initiative in assault, and the wielder gains +1 Attack if in base to base with more than one enemy model at their Initiative step. These are visually iconic weapons, and very powerful on normal sargeants, as they swing before enemy Power Fists and are AP2. I would take this over a Power Fist any day – the only time a Fist might be more helpful is against a Contemptor.
Legion Rites of War
The Death Guard have two unique Rites of War – The Reaping and Creeping Death.
This Rite evokes a “Reaping” attack pattern, which is designed to have a methodical advance akin to a Reaper’s scythe, cutting the enemy down as it goes, with nothing left behind.
To take this Rite, you cannot Deep Strike, you can only take one Fast Attack choice, and you cannot Run or move Flat Out – so your force is, by definition, not going to be particularly agile or able to rapidly redeploy. You will, therefore, have to build a force to compensate. I’ll be honest, these drawbacks are very limiting, as you can’t take a lot of units which might compensate for some of the Death Guard’s weaknesses.
The benefits are that Legion Veteran Tactical Squads and Legion Heavy Support Squads can be taken as Non-Compulsory Troops, everything gains Move Through Cover, and any character or independent character can take rad grenades for a mere +10 pts.
These are decent benefits, particularly the rad grenades – everyone who can take them should have them, with no exceptions – they are simply too good to pass up. Heavy Support Squads can be good, but are expensive – just because you can take them as Troops doesn’t, in my view, mean you should load up on them. However, I would urge you to maximise the benefits by taking at least one squad and then three Heavy Support choices if you can.
In terms of Troops, taking Veterans without the drawbacks of Pride of the Legion (where you give up VPs if they all die), should be something you look at – particularly if they’re mounted in Rhinos for mobility, which now don’t need dozer blades due to Move Through Cover.
Overall I think this Rite is OK, but the drawbacks really restrict some of the lists you might want to write. If you take it, you need to capitalise on the benefits in how you build your list – particularly the prevalence of Rad Grenades throughout your force.
This Rite is intended to represent the Death Guard opening the “forbidden arsenals” of horrendous chem weaponry, and turning them on their former brothers.
To take this Rite, you have to be a Traitor (probably not an issue) and cannot use Shattered Legion rules (again, not an issue). You also need to take a Siege Breaker, which means you’ll want to probably take Medusas (to use the phosphex shells) and a squad who can make use of Tank Hunters which he grants.
Strangely, you must always be the Attacker in any mission with an Attacker and Defender, which is not really a limitation, and you cannot use Fortifications or Allies, which again is a common “drawback” in Rites of War which isn’t usually a major problem.
So, the restrictions are not bad at all. The benefits, in contrast, are OK but not spectacular. Mist-clad makes Infantry models gain a cover save of 5+ in open ground, as long as no enemy is within 12” – this might save a few guys every game, but will not be something to rely on.
Bio-phage Bombardment is presented as the primary benefit to this Rite, but is massively underwhelming. After deployment, every wood or jungle has a D6 rolled for it – on a 4+ its reduced to a “fetid chemical mire” with -1 to its cover save, and Dangerous Terrain to anyone but the Death Guard.
I don’t know about you, but I rarely play with that kind of terrain, and when I do its only got a 5+ save anyway, so who cares if its now 6+, and has only a 50% chance of even that happening? I can count on one hand the number of times that might have made a difference in a game, and I’ve played a lot of games of Horus Heresy!
Finally, Toxin Weapons is decent I guess – frag grenades and frag missiles become S5.
This Rite is so-so. The limitations are, as we have said, not severe, but the benefits granted are very situational or not worth it enough on their own to justify this Rite over, say, the Reaping or another Rite entirely.
Toxin Weapons in large Heavy Support squads could be quite devastating – imagine 10 S5 blasts – but this smacks of building a list to try to maximise the use of pretty niche benefit which only really affects one or two units.
Overall, I can’t see that many uses for this Rite unfortunately.
Legion Special Units
The Death Guard, unusually have two different Terminator units for their unique legion squads. Both are, in their own way, very deadly.
Grave Warden Terminator Squad
Grave Wardens are units equipped with potent alchemical weapons, unleashing firepower inimical to life and purging all before them as they stoically advance. If the Emperor forbade use of a weapon, these guys probably used it as standard-issue wargear during the Heresy.
In terms of points, they start at 200 pts for 5 terminators in Cataphractii armour (so they aren’t moving very fast), all of which have Assault Grenade Launchers, Death Cloud and Power Fists.
The Grenade Launchers are what make these guys great – short ranged, bolt fed automatic launchers which can fire 2 Str 6 AP 4 shots at 18” (eh…) or 2 3+ poison, Ignores Cover small blasts (wow!). The blasts are, to be honest, tiresome to resolve in terms of dice rolls – 10 of them from a base squad – but they will do an absolutely outrageous number of hits and wounds. I have witnessed a squad of these in Zone Mortalis do 90+ Wounds to an enemy unit in one volley.
The Death Cloud is another great rule – anything charging the Grave Wardens which has a Toughness value (i.e. not a walker) is a Disordered Charge (so no Rage, no +1 Attack, etc), and each Grave Warden can do D3 3+ Poison AP 4 attacks at Overwatch, notwithstanding the fact they’re in Cataphractii armour. This is a really nice bonus and makes them very survivable.
In terms of running these, I would go for a small sized squad, possibly in a Land Raider Proteus to keep points light – they have power fists (and can take Chainfists), but you’re taking these guys for anti-infantry shooting more than anything (or a krak volley into the side or rear of the occasional vehicle). Let them be charged, Overwatch and then punch the enemy down. All round, very nice.
Deathshroud Terminator Squad
An unusual unit straight off the bat – these are Mortarion’s chosen guard, who have legendary endurance and fearless behaviour, surviving where others have died. They are supposed to be within 49 paces of Mortarion at all times. The reason they are unusual is that you buy them with a starting squad size of 2 (max 10), and they can be HQ or Elites.
They come with a hand flamer with Chem munitions (a nice bonus) and a Deathshroud power scythe, along with Implacable Advance, Tartaros Terminator Armour (technically just “Terminator Armour”, but the official models are in Tartaros), and can be used as a Command squad for a Praetor or Mortarion.
Overall these are reasonably priced (40 pts apiece for additional men over a 90 base pts cost), come with two Wounds, and can take melta bombs, obviating the usual risk of anti-infantry melee troops getting tied up by a Contemptor. I would take these every time – any Death Guard army can find use for a squad of these in a Land Raider accompanying a nasty HQ.
One final thought is, if you model these in Cataphractii, they’re slower and can’t Overwatch, but a 4++ invulnerable might synergise better with the 2 Wounds on their profile. It’s up to you, as the base cost is the same.
Legion Special Characters
Section Leader Crysos Mortug
A Loyalist only Death Guard character, Crysos is a veteran of the Rangda Xenocides who had psychic powers, leading him to be cast aside by Mortarion, who famously hated the “witch-breeds”. Crysos worked with the Destroyer Corps and was considered unstable even for them, going into suicidal situations again and again and coming out alive.
On Isstvan III he was marked for death but – of course – survived, leading the Loyalist remnants he could gather to take revenge on his Traitor kin amongst the stars.
On the tabletop, Mortug is a Praetor level character for 175 pts, but wearing only hardened power armour, so no 2+ save. He comes with rad grenades and he also grants Stubborn to his unit, allows them to Infiltrate, and has Mastery Level 1 with Endurance and Master of Ambush as his Warlord Trait. These add up to some interesting combinations of infiltrating Death Guard, which you don’t normally see.
An interesting and fluffy character, if lacking synergy with your typical Death Guard force – you tend not to load up on psykers (so Mastery Level 1 is a bit moot), and having a 3+ save on your Warlord is asking for trouble when the krak missiles start flying. I like his fluff and style, but can’t see a serious case for him outside of a fluffy loyalist force, sadly.
Marshal Durak Rask – Siegemaster of the Death Guard Legion
If you want to commit an unspeakable warcrime on an unsuspecting fortification, Durak Rask was your man – horrifically scarred, and horrifically efficient, Mortarion himself had singled him out for praise as Master of Ordnance. Rask was a keen supporter of the traitor cause, and volunteered for the vanguard at Isstvan III.
He’s another praetor-tier character, costing 165 pts, with Artificer armour, a Thunder hammer, Volkite serpenta, Nuncio-vox and a phosphex bomb – a respectable loadout. Rask, if he is the Warlord, allows him and all friendly units within 12” to re-roll 1s to Hit when shooting at enemy units within 3” of one (or more) objectives – a fantastic rule in many missions.
He also has Tank Hunters and Wrecker on all his attacks, and confers these to heavy weapon shooting attacks of any infantry unit he joins. This is good, albeit a bit counter-intuitive, as you’ll probably want Rask up in the frontlines, rather than escorting anything with a heavy weapon.
If you use Rask, you’ll just have to put a bit of thought into how to exploit his abilities to full effectiveness, but he’s the kind of character which can find a spot in most armies. The only final thought is directed to Forge World – why doesn’t he unlock phosphex, like a normal Siege Breaker? Odd.
Calas Typhon – First Captain of the Death Guard, The Left Hand of Mortarion
Typhon is, in some ways, a tragic figure – a talented psyker who was forced to repress his own talent in light of his gene-sire’s hatred of witchcraft. Typhon commanded the Terminus Est, a potent kingship of the Death Guard fleet, and reaped a bloody tally of Loyalists during the Heresy.
He comes it at 200 pts, with Cataphractii armour, a Master-crafted power scythe, hand flamer with chem munitions, rad grenades, a nuncio-vox and a grenade harness. All of this wargear tools Typhon up for extremely heavy hitting combat potential, as his enemies will be reduced in toughness as he swings with the power scythe.
Typhon also has a bevy of special rules. If he is the Warlord, the trait Comes the Reaper makes him a denial unit, with no enemy unit within 3” able to claim an objective (just try shifting him off one if he has a bodyguard!)
Chem-bombardment allows him to use a One-Use bombardment ability (I like to think from the Terminus Est) which brings down an AP 4, Poison 4+, Ignores Cover, Large Blast 3 template Barrage – a serious strike, even if its AP 4.
He also has Witchblood, representing his “taint” – he is a Level 1 psyker with Telepathy, but can’t use any powers if Mortarion is on the board “before Mortarion’s fall to Chaos” (so a fluff-only restriction). Finally, unless Mortarion is present, Typhon will always be the Warlord of the force he leads.
Mortarion the Reaper – the Pale King, The Traveller, Dread Liberator of Barbarus
Mortarion can only be described as “shadowed and sinister” – a grim figure who heralds death and judgment for his enemies.
Mortarion plays very differently from some other typical Primarchs – his statline is standard for Primarch-tier characters (but with a solid 7 Wounds!), but he has a unique rule called Shadow of the Reaper. This means if Mortarion is not in a transport, in Reserve, or in a combat, he can redeploy instead of shooting or running, by passing a Leadership check. This can be within ten inches of his starting position as long as it’s not within 3” of an enemy, or inside terrain/a building. It does not count as a move and he can assault normally (albeit Disordered).
In Zone Mortalis, needless to say, this is absolutely horrifying, and means Mortarion is up there with the Mhara Gal as unstoppable in that game variant. On the battlefield, it means you will often see Mortarion running solo, or moving away from his bodyguard as the game progresses. It removes one of the biggest disadvantages of the Death Guard – slow speed.
On top of this, Mortarion grants Stubborn to Death Guard units in his army, and gives 4+ Poison to frag grenades, frag missiles and Havoc launchers. He causes Fear, with Leadership checks for it at -1 penalty, and has Preternatural Resilience (which his Legion is famed for). This means Mortarion re-rolls It Will Not Die and Toughness tests, automatically passes all Dangerous Terrain checks, and any weapon which rolls based on a “flat dice roll” (e.g. Poison), only does so on a 6; these aren’t game-winning, but they’re very nice bonuses.
Mortarion famously hates psykers, so ignores Malediction powers on a 4+, and wears the Barbaran Plate (2+/4++). The rest of his battlegear is fearsome.
Silence, his signature massive man-reaper, gives him S7 attacks at AP2, with Instant Death, Sunder and Reaping Blow (so additional attacks if in base to base with multiple enemies). He also wields The Lantern, which is 18”, S8, AP2 Sunder – a pretty decent anti-tank weapon in a pinch. Finally, Mortarion has unlimited phosphex bombs with 12” range – don’t forget those!
Overall, Mortarion is a great “all rounder” Primarch, and is very useful in his ability to quickly react to enemy movements using Shadow of the Reaper. I would run him with some Deathshroud and be prepared to “ditch” that unit as you close with the enemy – Mortarion can put out 7 attacks on the charge with Reaping Blow, so he can cull one squad while the Deathshroud kill another.
Sample Army List
Below I set out a starting force for Death Guard, at 1,500 pts. This is just a suggestion, and isn’t meant to be a win at all costs list – instead, it is what I like the look of, and what I would collect if I was going to start Death Guard. I’ve tried to stick to plastic kits, or squads where you can buy upgrades cheaply from third parties like Spellcrow or Anvil Industry.
Rite of War – Pride of the Legion
- HQ – Praetor with Tartaros Terminator Armour, Master-Crafted Power Scythe, Digital Lasers, Grenade Harness, Iron Halo
- Elites – Contemptor Dreadnought with Dreadnought Close Combat Weapon (with Chem-Munitions Heavy Flamer) and Kheres Assault Cannon
- Troops – x4 Deathshroud Terminators with Melta Bombs in a Land Raider Phobos with a Dozer Blade
- Troops – Veteran Squad with 10 men, Artificer Armour, x2 Chem-Munitions Flamers, Rhino with Chem-Munitions Heavy Flamer, Dozer Blade
- Troops – Veteran Squad with 10 men, Artificer Armour, x2 Chem-Munitions Flamers, Rhino with Dozer Blade
- Heavy Support – x6 Heavy Support Legionaries with Missile Launchers
This list is designed to allow you to grow into a variety of different Rites – either sticking with Pride of the Legion, going for the Reaping, etc. The Praetor in his Land Raider forms an anchor to drive into your opponent’s battleline, supported by the Contemptor. The Veterans are your anti-infantry – use them to clear out enemy Tactical squads and the like, while the Missile launchers punch into tanks.
This list doesn’t have much to take out AV 14 at range, but at this points level you’ll be facing at most a Land Raider – Spartans are unlikely, and if they do appear, you can Melta Bomb them and punch them with the Contemptor.
To expand, bulk out the Heavy support squad, and get vehicle support like Sicarans. An Arcus would be a great asset here.
Next Time: The Blood Angels
In conclusion, the Death Guard are an iconic Heresy force, with a variety of modelling and painting opportunities available; from the original Dusk Raiders scheme to a plague-ridden late Heresy force more akin to the 41st millennium. On the battlefield they will be stoic, resilient, and grind the enemy to powder.
Next time, we open the latest Black Book and pore over this hallowed tome, considering in detail the Sons of Sanguinius – the Blood Angels. And as always, if you have any questions or feedback, drop us a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Abhor the witch! For Barbarus!