With all the hubub (and possible malarkey) centered around the Dark Angels lately, that long-ignored Codex has popped once more into prominence, which brings all the snarling and scorn that hangs off of it like little else in 40Kdom. Unlike the traditional Codex arc, in which a book has its time in the spotlight, ages, and falls to the bottom of the pole, the DA Codex has been openly loathed since precisely three seconds after emerging from the Nottingham chrysalis. It’s incredibly weak when compared to modern books, bereft of special rules, and hasn’t the faintest whiff of spectacle. Despite an emerging consensus that said Codex revamp is at least a year off, it can’t possibly be too long before this thing’s grudgingly scrubbed off of history’s windshield, and that strikes me as a damn shame.
The Dark Angels Codex represents a strange, quixotically brilliant evolutionary path that, sadly, dead-ended before it could really do what it seemed intended for. Shedding 4th Edition’s ultra-granular claptrap, the DA Codex took a streamlined view of the game, like a 2nd Edition book brought into modern times. Squads were bought at fixed sizes. Characters could upgrade to a limited set of mundane wargear, and you knew a Special Character meant business because their weaponry was master-crafted. It was a model of elegance and restrained game design that promised a 40K which relied more on maneuvering and focused application of force rather than comic book explosions and squads min-maxed for the sake of obscene firepower.
Naturally, people freaked the fuck out.
Lots of game designers take a lot of flak online, but I don’t think I’ve ever been witness to one treated so viciously as Jervis Johnson was for the Dark Angels book. The knives were out – very personally for Johnson and for his son, who apparently inspired this call to simplicity. It’s still something that lingers to this day, despite the fact that his role in the company seems to have been reduced to writing the only thing worth a damn in White Dwarf anymore. After a few more simplified books (including, yes, the inexcusable Chaos Codex), 40K went on to 5th Edition and a totally new style of Codex.
Thing is, though, the game’s direction didn’t go “back to normal,” but completely reversed, putting us solidly in the age of super powers for all. Everyone’s heard the mantra of “5th Edition Codexes are balanced against each other, and old armies will just have to catch up,” and most seem to think of this as a perfectly acceptable situation. So why was the reverse completely intolerable? Imagine if every 5th Edition Codex had gotten the Dark Angels treatment, with the power levels turned down a few notches rather than amped up to the bare edge of acceptability. A game where an Astartes Tactical Squad, supposedly one of the most fearsome military units in the galaxy, could do something besides sit in a tank and hope not to die. One where Bigred’s recent, much-discussed Big Thought on the Grey Knights would never need to be written, because no one would write a Codex like that. Would that really have been so bad?
A direct comparison, by the by, is not too difficult to find. Back in the late 90’s, Jervis Johnson re-did another Games Workshop product using a similar philosophy of stripping out granular special rules and replacing them with simplified, army-wide concepts with slight variations. Like the Dark Angels Codex, it was met with ferocious scorn by a public who couldn’t believe the man’s towering incompetence at the art of game design. For those of you not familiar with the tale, it was called Epic 40,000, and even with the minuscule amount of support it gets from GW anymore, it’s nowadays widely considered the best game they’ve ever released.
I’ll miss the Dark Angels Codex when it’s gone, and not just because it’s one of the few readable game books GW has in print anymore. It’s the high point of an interesting time in 40K’s evolution, one where the Studio worked to make a better game rather than a better splash release. Given player reactions, I doubt it’s something we’ll see again for a while.