So, I’ve looked at how GW currently does the business with regards to theme builds: stuff that moves other stuff around in army books. Now I want to look at how they used to do things: sub-lists. Semi-official ask-your-opponent-first, or completely-official no-we-won’t-make-you-negotiate-your-goals-like-adults variations on the regular army list, frequently lifting or imposing restrictions on what troops could be included, and occasionally introducing new weapon options or unit types.
The thing is, with those sub-lists, is that they can serve two purposes. They can take a collection which is deliberately limited by its tight theme, and therefore lacks the range of tactical options that it needs to succeed on table, and they can give it something to make up for that, whether by adding new units or by making existing ones do something different. They are sometimes a mechanical necessity, helping the kind of player who wants to have it both ways (i.e. to theme their army and actually play the game properly).
If I can draw on a WFB example for a moment, the old Army of Sylvania from Storm of Chaos was one of these. For those who don’t remember those days, the Army of Sylvania was an Undead Empire army; von Carstein Vampire characters, Zombie militia with halberds or spears, Skeleton state troops with the regular spears or, alternatively, crossbows (yes really), and Grave Guard with great weapons and full plate armour. Oh, and it didn’t have Necromancers. It was a list for people who wanted their swooshy-cloaked Vampire aristocrats in charge. Fine, except that in those days Vampire Heroes didn’t have magic levels, which meant every Vampire Counts army tended to blow its hero slots on Necromancers… remember what I was saying about things that aren’t part of your theme being at the heart of your battleplan in the last entry? Case in point. If you felt there was something off-kilter about Necromancers being the most important models in a Vampire Counts army, this was the list for you.
Acknowledging that the design of the regular Vampire Counts book made it reliant on Necromancers (unless you were playing Necrarchs, and frankly even they were a poor substitute), this sub-list shifted the responsibility for anti-magic onto von Carstein Vampire characters (with new Bloodline powers and the first appearance of a very different Drakenhof Banner), added some Bound raising spells via cool themed terrain and a new Bloodline power to help with the generation of new units and the raising of new models into old ones, and opened up access to multiple Vampire Lords to ensure that the absence of a Master Necromancer didn’t cripple the list at 3000 points or above. Skeleton Crossbowmen took the weight away from offensive spellcasting (and also gave the list something to do in the Shooting phase, which I confess I found rather appealing even if they couldn’t hit squat-all), too, ensuring that it had the all-important mid-range threat.
All of this made the Vampires-without-Necromancers build playable, encouraged extended conversions (since more Empire troops could now be directly represented in the army), tactical requirements all present and correct, without forcing the theme player to rely on out-of-theme units, and it encourages (nay, requires!) the building of at least a few pieces of themed terrain.
Of course, in an ideal world, none of it would have been necessary, since the options needed to build a Vampire-heavy Empire-themed undead army and have it work on the tabletop would already have been in the book. That’s something GW bore in mind for the seventh edition release and, if you’re asking me, did pretty well at. Shame they lost the crossbows along the way…
Anyway, that’s a relatively good sub-list. Sub-lists have a dark side, though, and it’s one which is better illustrated by a return to 40K.
The old Chaos Space Marine codex from fourth edition had eight sub-lists – one for each Chaos Legion, with the Black Legion implicitly represented by the regular army list. Each sub-list improved access to some pieces and restricted access to others, and most added a new unit or weapon or something to the mix – for example, the Word Bearers gave up the cult troops like Plague Marines or Thousand Sons, and gained a new daemon weapon and morale buff to represent their Chaos Chaplains with, plus increased access to Daemons.
People had been playing, painting, modelling, making up backstories for and generally enjoying Iron Warriors or Word Bearers or Night Lords armies for years, ever since the idea of a Chaos Space Marine army list emerged back in second edition (first edition was a mess as far as design was concerned, with pretty much every Citadel miniature cropping up in some variant Chaos list or another), without needing special rules to ‘encourage’ (read ‘bribe’) them into doing so.
Reading the background, you’d notice that the Word Bearers didn’t devote themselves to one Chaos God, and so either avoid taking cult troops, or take them, paint them in different colours, and make up a little backstory for them being there. Your Chaos Chaplain might just be an ordinary Hero with a Daemon or power weapon and a conversion field. You might choose to ally in some Chaos Cultists, the poor souls who’d invited the Word Bearers to their world, or you might prefer Beastmen for a proper raiding force of mutant filth straight out of the Eye. Oh, and none of this excludes or shorts out any of the tactical choices you have to make, by the way – it’s an open playing field, in which your tactical and thematic priorities can sit side by side, and the only mutually exclusive restrictions are the ones you choose or don’t choose to put there. It’s a far cry from ‘if you want magic levels in your army, it’s Necrarch Vampires or Necromancers, and your army needs magic levels to function’.
This sort of behaviour was encouraged by the flavour text in the second edition book, too, which had the Night Lords – a very Undivided Legion who aren’t too keen on the idea of Chaos Gods – invading a planet with all manner of cult troops (in particular a very strong Berserker contingent) temporarily allied with them. Most of the army shots featured things like Iron Warriors and their Plague Marine mates shooting up hapless Imperial defenders, while the featured list was a pure Night Lords force, just to show (show, not tell – this is all implicit stuff that the reader was expected to absorb and work out on their own behalf) that the pure one-Legion force was acceptable too.
In fourth edition? Nope. Each Legion’s preferences were clearly delineated and defined by sub-lists, with no officially sanctioned movement between them (yes, you could fanhammer it, but I’ve never been keen on house rules as a repair job for bad design – for one thing, at the time I wasn’t able to play games in my house). It was like playing a loyalist Marine Chapter!
Of course, you could just use the regular list, paint your Undivided Marines as Word Bearers and your cult troops in whatever colours you wanted, and hope that you didn’t run into the sort of stunted imagination that would give you an earful about how “you should use the proper Word Bearers list if you want to use Word Bearers, your Word Bearers aren’t fluffy, so you are a beardy cheesemonger and you probably got your list off the Internet…”
Needless to say, that was a fool’s hope. Instead of something that was its own reward, something you did because you’d found something you liked and chose to think about some more, theming an army list became something that you were told how to do, and NO OTHER VARIATION WAS ACCEPTABLE. Woe betide you if you actually wanted to play Black Legion; the Chaos Unlimited list was damned by assocation in the small minds of many, and became an invitation to harangues about WAAC, the joys of fluff, how you were lazy and inadequate for using the main list (yes, really, even if all you had to do to reach the esoteric joys of the Magical Theme was to turn the ruddy page).
All this is being charitable and assuming that there aren’t balance issues between the sub-lists – which there were, by the way, because having to test nine army lists rather than one for a new release is going to put a bit of a strain on things. I’ll just say ‘four Heavy Support choices’ and leave it at that. Frankly, I think theming should be its own reward, and not something you do because you want access to a particularly powerful set of special rules – I tried out the Army of Sylvania because I’d been building an Undead Empire army anyway and wasn’t keen on Necromancers being my most important pieces, not because I had an urgent desire to own the scene with Dire Wolf spam and multiple Black Coaches.
There’s nothing wrong with building a themed army and wanting it to do well for itself, of course, and a good, open army book will allow you to do this without either bribing or straitjacketing you into making particular choices. Such a book won’t need sub-lists, because it’ll be possible to turn it every which way and that and make tactically sound or unsound choices as you see fit – ironic, really, that the basic fourth edition Chaos Codex was actually that kind of book. There is something wrong with using the theme rules just because you want twelve Obliterators for this year’s tournament list, though, and there’s definitely something wrong with snorting through your nose because someone wants Plague Marines and Word Bearers on the same battlefield.