Sunday, 18 October 2015

40k Army building - Background overview

Hi all, and welcome to the second article of my army building series - this time we'll be looking at building a background for your collection, and everything that this entails, from the simplest of elements such as a paint scheme to the most complex and detailed elements like naming characters, and fleshing out individual background stories for them all. Strap yourselves in, it's gonna be a fluffy ride!

Ok so as with each of the first articles on the three key strands of army building I've identified, I'm going to give you a general overview at this stage of what I mean, and I'll start from first principles.

Participants in the 40k hobby will generally refer to the background and similar elements of the army as 'fluff'. Now I don't know who specifically coined that phrase or what its origins were, but the most convincing explanation I've seen is that it's derived from fluff being used as padding (presumably in cushions etc) and therefore when padding out the background of an army, fluff seemed an appropriate term. It makes sense to me so I'm gonna go with that.

So what does it do, why do we have it? Well, 40k is frequently referred to as having one of the most iconic and well developed backgrounds in its area, mainly due to the fact that GW have been writing about it for over 25 years, and they started writing about it at a time when there was little or nothing else like it available anywhere.

For many of us, even if we don't necessarily view the fluff as an essential part of the hobby, we still have an inextricable link to it on the tabletop. You've got a favourite special character? Well the rules for that character have been developed to reflect their background, their fluff (please note, I am aware that not all background gets translated directly into rules without being substantially toned down, or a marine army would consist of about two squads).

Many players out there will completely ignore the fluff, they don't read it, they don't consider it when they're choosing their army, they simply look for the best combination of rules to achieve a win on the tabletop and the models and background are irrelevant, but here's the thing. Having a well-fleshed out background story does not detract from tabletop performance. Now I'm the first to admit that if you pick your army based on the fluff then you're less likely to include the nastier combinations that are available, but it's your fluff - you can justify anything you want to. Of course people like me will still look at your list and remain unconvinced, but that's our problem, not yours.

So why include it at all? Quite simply, I firmly believe that a well thought out and written background for your army gives you a more rounded experience of the hobby, is more fulfilling and enhances the overall experience. If your Space Marine captain manages to bring down a wraithknight, it might win you the game. The valiant Captain Iolus single-handedly smashing the wraith-construct that was threatening the main settlement of the Ixian hive-world however becomes part of his legend - all your games contribute to that story and legacies are established (not to mention grudges held). I guess it comes from my grounding in the hobby from the campaign type games such as bloodbowl and necromunda, which were designed with an evolving storyline in mind, and they influenced me heavily in my formative hobby years.

So, let's look at developing the fluff then, and we'll start with our paint scheme. Now, most of us won't think that background really forms part of coming up with a paint scheme, but very often it does, more so for some armies than others. Space marines of course are very heavily connected to heraldry, and so quite often will have connections between their chapter name and their colours (white scars, silver skulls, crimson fists etc). A very simple link therefore would be to consider a name for a marine chapter based in some way on the paint scheme. Guard armies are another, with their uniform likely influenced by their background (steel legion, tallarn desert raiders, valhallan ice warriors etc) and the likelihood that their uniforms would be in some way camouflaged for their home environment. Tau are another army that would use camouflage heavily due to their practical nature, the list goes on.

As an example from my own personal work, I developed a space marine colour scheme while I was at university heavy influenced by a tiger's striped hide, mainly because I liked the boldness of it, but when I came to think about the background I incorporated that element, with tiger in the name of the chapter and their home world being similar in character to the places where tigers dwell on our own planet, and their patterning keeps them hidden.

Bear with me now, cos I'm gonna get a bit metaphorical. Background fluff for your army is a bit like an onion (no, not because it makes me cry - though plenty of attempts at background justification have made me feel like that). I'm talking layers here, so I tried to figure out a way of representing what I'm talking about.

Here's our fluff onion (is it me or does that sound a bit unhygienic?)

This is roughly the way I would develop the background of any of my armies out there, and though often the inspiration may come from one of the deeper layers first, I'll then go back to the outer layer and work inwards.

Some of the key things to remember when building your fluff onion however are the following:
1. If you write something outrageous, then expect people to respond accordingly. Writers call this 'suspension of disbelief' meaning you delay as long as possible the point at which the reader says 'that's rubbish'. In practice, I call it not being cocky with your background. For example, if I wrote about a Dark Eldar Archon and in his background I decided to make him the most powerful, richest Archon in Commorragh, anyone at all familiar with the Dark Eldar codex is going to call you out on it, because the history and setting of Commorragh is so strongly set out in the codex that if this Archon did exist, then what's already been written would be seriously defective. Tweak that slightly however, and write your Archon as an underhanded young trueborn Dark Eldar, who has wrested control of a Kabal from his former master, and is rapidly gathering followers and beginning to make his presence felt within the corridors of power in the Dark City and you've got a much more believable character. Similarly you can apply that concept to all armies within the game - an Ultramarines Captain? Well they're all defined in the existing fluff so just pick one rather than naming your own.
2. Try to set your army into a convenient space in the fluff, rather than shoehorning it in somewhere that's already very developed. Using the Ultramarine example, Ultramar is a realm of over 500 worlds, but only a single space marine chapter. There's no point trying to place your own chapter into that region of space because the existing background already tells us it's not there.
3. Tactics and organisation are often influenced by homeworld characteristics - for example the Armageddon Steel Legion are all transported in their own APC's due to the hostile environment they operate in. White Scars are inclined towards bike mounted warfare because the tribes from which they are drawn fight on horseback and it's therefore a way of war that comes as second nature to them. You may therefore want to build into your fluff a certain amount of justification for your organisation.
4. A flawed character often makes a more believable one than a paragon of moral virtue. This is evident all through GW's own writing, but nowhere illustrated more clearly I think than Uriel Ventris, the Ultramarines Captain from the Black Library series, who is a member of the chapter vaunted for being strict adherents to the codex astartes and yet he himself is perfectly willing to break with its teachings when necessary.
5. The key support characters and secondary characters need less detail than the more important ones in your army. Detailing a full page of fluff on a tactical squad sergeant is fine, but are you really going to get into this? Better to leave that kind of detail to the warlord and just do a more light-touch version for the lesser characters.
6. Stick to the naming conventions established by GW. For example, Guard regiments will normally be named after their founding and the planet they're from, with more informal names such as 'The Lions of Astoria' following the formal designation. Space Marines, by contrast are the perfect place for such titles, the 'Astorian Lions' fitting the bill quite nicely. Similarly, Eldar tend to be named after a craftworld, Orks will use their leader's name etc.

Okay so there's my overall thoughts on background and fluff. Next article in this thread of the series will take you through a 'worked' example as I build on the basic fluff I established for my Tau army 'The Obsidian Enclave'. I'll want to catch up on the new Tau codex and the latest fluff in that first though, so the next article may be a couple of weeks away.