[40K] Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Does the Dark Angels Codex Have to Go?

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.

22 thoughts on “[40K] Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Does the Dark Angels Codex Have to Go?”

  1. Hi Lexington I’ve been a fairly long-time commenter on Von’s work, but I think this is the first time I’ve commented on one of your posts. I just wanted to say that I agree with you about Jervis. The amount of bile that is spat at him is just crazy unacceptable in my book. He is a human being, and more than that, he’s an extremely experienced game designer.

    Many people online who are, as far as I can tell, just players, seem to think that they are better designers than he is. The fact is game design is his job. He spends all day every day thinking about this stuff, and has done for at least the last thirty years. People should give him some god-damn respect, or at least admit that he doesn’t just randomly vomit up rules. Everything he does is done for a considered reason, as his excellent Standard Bearer articles show.

    Thanks for standing up for the bloke :)

    1. Standard Bearer has been a breath of fresh air whenever I have picked up a White Dwarf over the past few years. And Jervis? He clearly isn’t on the same page as the power gaming tournament players. His columns, his games, etc. all suggest that, if it wasn’t for his job, he’d be an Oldhammer gamer by preference.

    1. Nah. It’s the drive to sell more toys. If the new book is “more powerful” than the last, then the teenage market, and the tournament players, will buy into that army in an attempt to be able to win more games with less thought and skill.

      (D&D, I couldn’t comment on.)

  2. Second all of those, I’m a 2nd Ed gamer too which is maybe why I *like* this stuff – regardless or my preference for it or not, it’s great to hear people pointing out these are human beings not broken rule generating machines. Met Jervis several times over the past 20 years, lovely bloke, clearly knows what he’s doing.

    All the best from sunny Nottingham

  3. I agree with a lot of the sentiments here. Overall the Dark Angels codex is one which I often contemplated buying as it I think it was a watershed example of codex design. It forced people to play AS Dark Angels and for the life of me I never understood why this was an issue IF that was the army you wanted to buy.

    (I didn’t like the fixed unit size as for me I like a bit of narrative, say, to have a 7 man squad worn down by attrition but that’s just personal taste.)

    I still may buy it. I’ll never play it but I don’t think we will ever see a sole Jervis Johnson project again for GW and I fear he will leave soon.

    That’s not to say I have anything against the newer designers but it’s just different!

    1. You fear that JJ will leave GW? I’m actually hoping that he does, as long as he stays working in game design (even if just as a hobby). Ansell, Preistley, the Perry Twins etc. are all still active, but aren’t tied to the GW business model (even if some of them have responsibility for the shape of the beast!).

      He’s fighting a losing battle, it seems. Not only against the majority of GW*, but against the majority of GW’s customers who have little interest in playing the game for pleasure with emotionally mature co-players, only ‘The Hobby’, ‘optimal builds’, etc.

      Just so long as he stays long enough to protect the next release of Blood Bowl, if there is to be one.

  4. “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.”

    [citation needed]

    I’ve never come across that sentiment. Even among the active Epic players I know. I know folks who play and develop NetEpic, which uses 2nd edition (Space Marine) as its core rules, and I know plenty more who play Epic: Armageddon and the fan developed stuff for that, but I’ve never come across anyone who still works with the Epic 40,000 rules. Normally, it’s cited that the E40k rules are *too* abstract, and don’t give any “feel” to any of the units in the game, where E:A got the balance of abstraction/granularity right.

    1. Fair point on that – Epic: Armageddon is the one I really should cite. I am/was operating under the impression that E:A was an almost superficial refinement of E40K, but maybe I’m wrong there? Opponents have always been scarce, and I’m drenched in rule sets, so keeping up with changes has been difficult.

      1. (To be absolutely honest, while I played Titanicus a bit, and Space Marine and E:A a lot, I missed out on actually playing E40k as I was mostly away from wargaming at that point).

        From what I’ve heard and read, the way shooting worked in E40k was that each model/stand contributed a number of dice to each attack, and there was no difference between the dice from model to model and formation to formation, it was about the number of dice and the defence value of the target, like firing weapon batteries in BFG.

        In E:A, when you shoot, each stand/model has one or more weapons, and each weapon has a range, and (mostly) an AP (anti-personnel) and AT (anti-tank) value, and you roll against the one appropriate to the target (e.g. armoured vehicle or infantry) to hit them and potentially cause a casualty. So a unit with a missile launcher (AP 5+, AT 6+) has a different flavour and use to a lascannon (AT 5+, no AP). Add in Macro (exceptionally destructive weapons, like Multi-Meltas), AA, and Barrage weapons, simple penalties and bonuses for the firing unit’s orders and any cover the defender is using, and a handful of USRs (e.g. Titan Killer, Ignore Cover), and you’ve got a very clean and simple to understand system, that works across all the races, and that gives flavour and purpose to different weapon systems.

  5. It seems to me that Jervis Johnsons game design philosophy has been pulling against the GW policy for the majority of his career. He seems to have been stuck writing interesting and often more sensible (and therefore “underpowered”) rules for existing irredeemably broken systems or else writing his own brand new rule sets which dont appeal to the main GW market.

    Largely Jervis writes rules for the sort of games that I want to play, rather than the amorphous, loophole screwing, market driven messes that the majority of GW gamers want to play. To each their own of course, but it does mean that Jervis has been an uneasy fit for GW for a long time now I reckon.

    Personal attacks via the internet are repellent for any reason of course, but the internet is a pretty unpleasant place.

    The impression that I got from Jervis Johnsons rules and articles over the years (and subsequently from speaking to him at conventions) was that he is exactly the sort of guy that I would like to have in my gaming group. He seems interested in playing engaging, narrative driven and fun games rather than trying to play toy soldiers as if it were a CCG. If he ever does leave GW then I would be very interested in what rulesets he might come up with if he had free rein.

    I read somewhere a long time ago (one of the Epic 40000 magazines from ~2001 or so I think) that Epic 40000 was the ruleset that Jervis Johnson was proudest of, including Blood Bowl. Its a while since I played either Epic 40000 or Epic: Armageddon but I think that the some of the decisions made for Armageddon were a step backwards. Making a distinction between different sponson weapons on a 6mm predator was a concession to far for my tastes. I preferred the streamlining in Epic: 40000.

    1. I got to have a conversation about this with Jervis Johnson at a Canadian Grand Tournament back in 2000 (or 2001?), and it was interesting to hear his thoughts on why Epic 40,000 got such a negative reception. What was really interesting, however, was seeing how Epic Armageddon put the ‘grit’ that Epic players apparently loved so much back into Epic. They are essentially the same game with different decoration.

  6. I hope Jervis has nothing to do with the next DA codex – its garbage… It’s even worse than the Tyranid codex. The only army you ever see is Deathwing which is a point and click army and it wouldn’t be any good except that GW decided to let them have the 3++ stormshield and 2 shot cyclone missile launcher. Writing a terrible codex that nobody wants to play is just bad in every way.

    1. It’s only a bad codex because it’s overpowered by the other codexes that came after it. If the codex writing had continued in that style then it’d be a different story and Dark Angels would still be a viable army.

      If you ignore what came aftewards and compare it to something like the Blood Angels pdf and the 4th ed Chaos book, it’s fantastic. I for one loved the simplified list creation from those books.

      I think you can still see aspects of this approach when you look at the current BA and SM codexes (tactical squads are a good example), but this is outweighed by the crazy effective stuff.

      I wish we were playing a game where Tactical squads were actually a good unit.

      1. Actually, I’ve found that playing Warhammer with a platoon or so of Imperial Guardsmen per side can be a pretty pleasant experience. Rather than being minimalist, playing with pure Guardsmen really expands the tactical part of the game since the morale and pinning rules come into full effect.

  7. I actually picked up Dark Vengeance and with it a DA Codex because I preferred regular marines to chaos, and after learning the lore, was wholly drawn into the game.

    I find a couple things interesting, my friend picked up Blood Angels around that time, and his Grand Master Librarian was a Level 3, while Ezekial (DA-Master Lib) was only a Level 1, even with the Eratta.

    Now I am a Rank:Noob when it comes to 40k, and DV was my starter set, but my more experienced friends tell me that the DA Codex is underpowered, but as was mentioned above, the simple unit rules, and loadouts, and even the differentiation between Regular Marines and Company Veterans were easy to understand and pick up. Grey Knights, Blood Angels and Space Marine (5th) all confused me when reading through force charts, but that may be more my inexperience than anything else.

    I am curious to see what comes out next, but I’m glad I got my DA Codex.

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