The Beard Bunker’s herd of nerds just spent a week playing Warhammer 40K Crusade at my place, carrying on where we left off with the Brütal Crüsade Weekend. The good times committee have issued a unanimous statement proclaiming said week to be “pretty great.” Eight players, ten armies, and many loud noises.
There were so many glorious little narrative moments and spasms of dice-based betrayal that I couldn’t possibly squeeze them into one readable post, so like last time I’m just going to provide my own experience: what I painted beforehand, how I marginally refined my hosting skills, and how my own Cobalt Scions fared in the maelstrom of carnage and biscuits.
So many biscuits. God dammit Boris you will be the end of me.
I hope my herdmates might also feel the urge to write up their experiences as well, but I make no promise on their behalf. Not least of which because some of them are knackered right now. Well, two of them: the optimists. I'll get to them later.
Preparation part one: finishing the Phobos lads and upgrading the impulsor
With all the shenanigans of Jeff's genestealer cultists, Drew and Harvey's craftworlders, and Tom's Blood Axes, I wanted shenanigans of my own. A squad of Phobos-clad skirmishers seemed apt, so I cracked on with the other four incursors. These guys were painted using the same method laid out here.
The only painting coda to add is the face. Historically I've always started with my darkest skin tone and worked up. These days, for pale skin, I've actually started with Wraithbone and worked back the other way, starting with a glaze of Kislev Flesh over the whole thing, then darkening specific areas with more reddish glazes of Cadian Fleshtone for the temples, cheeks, nose and ears, then on to the other details like normal. I find it makes the skin much more lively, to my eye at least.
|Lydus Petronius, combat squad leader, 3rd squad, 3rd company
Lastly, the painting equivalent of admin. I assembled and painted the last options I wanted for my impulsor APC: the missile pod and the shield dome. This just sits snugly on the plain impulsor, so I can still turn the tank into a gladiator lancer if need be.
|100% not a naval mine
Preparation part two: hosting a small gaming event
I've hosted many Warhammer-flavoured gatherings over the years, and so I knew there were pitfalls. We're all adults, so telling people what to do and when to do it seems needlessly bossy, and historically I avoided it as much as possible. The thing is, that doesn't actually facilitate the best experience; stuff ends up being sort of haphazard, people get fewer opportunities to play, and overall no-one knows what's going on.
Of course there is such a thing as going too far the other way; the trick is to let people choose what they'd like to do, but to do so in advance. To that end: spreadsheets. Cue Barry White...
|Step 2: People use the availability sheet to see who's available, then they challenge each other to games and book a table slot.
|Step 3: bill people for food afterwards
...slap bass fades back to nominal levels. This probably seems hilariously anal of me, but it made things much easier to keep track of, and enabled my incredibly supportive wife, who had the bizarre urge to help feed these fools, with the knowledge needed to order appropriate amounts of food. It also meant we were swiftly remunerated for the £110+ we spent above our usual weekly food budget.
With game times set, the nerdy side of things pretty much ran itself, not least of which because people were good about tidying away the terrain between games without any prompting from me - everyone knew the value of having space for books, armies, tea, et cetera.
Before/after each game we'd discuss how the mission would affect the Eridani Sector, and this sandboxy approach means one doesn't really need a campaign GM. Of course, it only works with more experienced players, and there's an understanding that we check ideas with the most experienced players in the group so that the setting retains a consistent tone that doesn't short change anyone's factions.
If I didn't have a dishwasher there'd be a case for some sort of dishwashing rotor. As it was I pretty much did the pots and pans myself, but had I asked anyone to help out, they would have said yes. Which does rather beg the question as to why I didn't ask for help, and all I can postulate is some sort of vestigial Britishness on my part and/or a sud fetish.
Several players who shall remain nameless (OK, Tom and Harvey) booked three games a day for multiple days in a row, and while I salute their enthusiasm, this turned out to be an unsustainable intensity of Warhams unless you're playing very small 500 point things (and we were generally playing 750-1000). They were amusingly knackered. Perhaps the early 20s version of ourselves might have managed, but now? They were the canaries in our Game Intensity Test Saturation coalmine, here to tell us what not to do. Despite being knackered they did, however, remain highly entertaining opponents.
I played one or two token games with my speed freaks, the stand-in ork army I'm using until I've gotten the Goffs off the ground. It conclusively demonstrated that substantial numbers of Evil Sunz warbikers are obnoxious. Sorry Maisey! Sorry Thomas!
The rest of the time, I had an absolute blast with the Cobalt Scions.
My week's games broadly told two stories: one about Jeff's Starborn Souls as they spread across the Eridani Sector like the clap, and another about the machinations of Farseer Vahlkaer of Ulthwé as he endeavoured to
kick a hornet's nest antagonise the Imperium and destabilise the sector.
Prelude game: The bugs bug out
Following on directly from the weekend we spent fighting over Andaras Prime, Jeff decided the Starborn Souls had accepted that they couldn't maintain a foothold on the planet. Instead, they waited until the Scions' cruiser Preceptor was forced to break orbit to chase down some unwelcome ork raids elsewhere in the system. The cult needed to make a break for orbit in every skiff and light freighter they could find, but they needed to disable Andaras' planetary defence silos first. That was the context for our game: a small force, led by Lieutenant Nerva, defending a laser battery from sabotage.
|The Starborn Souls begin their hit-and-run attack on the defence lasers
We picked a scenario with four objectives: two laser silos and their two plasma reactors. Jeff threw a speedy right hook with bikes and quads, while I attempted to hold the centre against what turned out to be a thoroughly bracing charge by a squad of acolytes. They almost wiped out Sergeant Tyvus' 10 intercessors in a single round, leaving only the sergeant alive. With the attack on the centre dissolving into absolute mutual destruction, the battle broke down into random skirmishes scattered across the board: on the right, Squad Lytanus fending off a wave of genestealers with bolt rifles. On the left, Jeff discovered the absolute joy of killing aggressors only to watch Apothecary Eudemus resurrect one every turn. He also made the crucial mistake of using the kellermorph to take out Lieutenant Nerva when he could have sabotaged one of the laser silos. He'd already taken out the two power generators, and one more objective would have won him the game. Instead, I hunted the kellermorph down with the two surviving aggressors and gave him some lightly sautéed bolt rounds, then used my newly arrived gunship to give his surviving genestealers an unwelcome strafing run.
The end result was a draw: the lasers remained intact, but with their power supplies out, a number of the cult's ships were able to break orbit before the lasers came back online and blow the stragglers out of the sky. The cult immediately started heading for multiple worlds across the Eridani Sector while sharing an obnoxious barrage of tweets about hailing Hydra and cutting off heads, or something.
In video game terms, Jeff had unlocked the open world map.
Game 1: The Cleansing of Jebalt
With the Starborn Souls scattered to the four winds, the Cobalt Scions finished off what they were doing on Andaras, then returned to Thonis to recuperate, and wait for the distress calls to start coming in.
|If we were pros and/or madmen, we could have thrown some baking soda over all these conspicuously un-snowy pieces of scenery. We extremely didn't.
The first signal they got was from an isolated outpost in the Iudex system: a frozen research base on a planet called Jebalt. Strong The Thing vibes, thought I. Probably a trap, thought I. Sadly I haven't painted any flamestorm aggressors, so couldn't channel my inner Kurt Russell. Instead I turned up with Captain Lucullus and some close, emotionally available friends. The inevitable cult ambush was summarily mown down by the filthy po-po (that's me) and Lucullus was feeling pretty good about the whole thing... until a kellermorph popped up behind him, threw the concealing snow off his cloak, screamed "Vive la revolution!" and knocked out 4 of Lucullus' 6 wounds... at which point, the broodlord itself led a clutch of genestealers into my back lines.
Lucullus heroically intervened, trying to save his men despite his dire injuries, and miraculously survived the two attacks the broodlord threw his way. Having saved a good number of his men, the Scions fell back in good order and mowed the filthy xenos down.
Vive la revolution indeed, rebel scum.
At this point the kellermorph, very ignored thanks to the powerfully in-my-face broodlord, took Lucullus out. Just, right out. Jeff might have lost the battle, but I don't think that's the game he was playing. I think he was playing Pokémon: Gotta Assassinate 'Em All! ...and he was winning. That was half my characters who had, at some point, been taken out of play by that clown. The indignity. The sheer indignity.
See that's the great thing about Crusade: Jeff had taken the silence detractor agenda, and despite getting oppressed by The Man, had absolutely raked in the XP for spanking Captain Lucullus. My poor wounded captain was taken back to Thonis, whereupon the Chapter's armourers forged a new and improved cuirass to protect him (read: I acquired a crusade relic).
Game 2: Farce on Edrastan
Another astropathic call for aid from the Iolan Reaches, this time from the Edrastan system. A tiny border world. Imperial in name only. And, crucially, so intolerant of psykers that they just kill them all, meaning: the astropathic call for aid? Definitely faked. This was 100% a trap. No matter, thought Lucullus... my new cuirass shall protect me! With his mates in tow, off he went to spring the trap and assert his amazingness for all the sector to see.
He landed and set about unpacking a forward operating base, when--- surprise! Craftworld Ulthwé send their regards via the medium of LASERS AND MISSILES. Harvey quite smoothly kicked my teeth in. A whiffy first few turns from me, and some solid work by a trio of war walkers, left me with a serious lack of dudes and an even more serious lack of objectives, on account of him having destroyed them. When the eldar finished wrecking my supplies they started melting away, leaving the survivors to try, in vain, to grab their stragglers before they quit the field.
|Come out with your Scorpion's Claws up, punk.
Lucullus had no idea why the eldar had attacked, and on such an irrelevant world, so...
Game 3: Chase Them Down
...he jumped in an impulsor, called armoured units down from orbit, and gave chase. Thanks to some obnoxious rolling in my first turn, this was the fastest game of the week. The game was over in the first shooting phase; Harvey retreated in his first turn, leaving me with a pair of captive Rangers who I could hand over to the Ordo Xenos in the hopes of getting answers to learned questions like "why now?" and "Y U do dis?"
|The table after the turn one shooting phase: three war walkers and a squadron of jetbikes are just not there any more. Gutted.
Game 4: Double Betrayal
This was the only doubles game of the week: Harvey/Vahlkaer convinced Drew's Iybraesil Farseer Taliesin - with whom I had formed an uneasy truce at the end of the last campaign weekend - to help rescue or at least kill the two rangers I was now trying to hand over to the Inquisition (here represented by Tom's Ordo Xenos Inquisitor and his Raven Guard mates).
That Craftworld Iybraesil should betray the truce was regrettable but unsurprising to Lucullus. The delicious extra detail, though, was that while Vahlkaer told Taliesin that the Cobalt Scions had taken two of his rangers captive, what he failed to mention was that he'd carried out an unprovoked attack on a human world and really had only himself to blame. Bound by kinship, Iybraesil's warriors lined up against the humans and prepared to risk their lives.
We set up two black Valkyrie gunships to represent where the prisoners were held, grounded due to a fear of Eldar interceptors waiting higher up. There were little snippets of roleplay here, too, as Captain Lucullus gave several warnings to the Iybraesil forces that if they engaged, the Scions would give no quarter.
Well, engage they did.
Unfortunately for them, Team Eldar had a flop of an opening round, leaving far too many Astartes in play. Tom and I were pleasantly surprised... and then set about punching everything in the face.
|My dreadnought about to punch Drew's dreadnought right in the moomin face.
Despite this initial setback, Team Eldar rallied a little and managed to take out the Raven Guard holding Valkyrie 1, leaving just Tom's Inquisitor there. The roleplay possibilities immediately dawned on Harvey and Drew, and the Black Guardians of Ulthwé were sent in to capture him alive. Incredibly, Inquisitor Michael passed a whole bunch of improbable saves and deny the witch rolls, then made a desperate breakout, preventing his capture. Thwarted, Harvey instead shot him down with Dire Avengers, grievously injuring him and forcing him to quit the field by oh so glamorously diving headfirst down a sewer hatch faster than you can say "sepsis." With the Inquisitor sent packing, the Black Guardians retrieved the captured ranger sitting in Valkyrie 1.
This, of course, left the game in a stalemate: the eldar lacked the numbers to take Valkyrie 2, and if you draw in a Crusade game, everyone loses. Narratively this was perfect; without two prisoners to bounce off each other, interrogation would be much harder.
To further add narrative juice, Drew announced that she would send her Spiritseer Osinel into the sewer system to look for Michael and attempt to repair the epic diplomatic damage Iybraesil had been tricked into doing. In theory we had another game of 40K scheduled that evening, but Drew, Tom and I elected to head to another room and roleplay the scene in which a concussed Michael woke to find an eldar spiritseer had saved his life by giving him a cranial bone graft... of wraithbone. Future meetings with psykers and puritans: likely to be awkward.
Either way some tense negotiations between a concussed Inquisitor and a nervous spiritseer, made all the more tense by Lucullus' arrival, all ended with the truce more-or-less reinstated. Osinel was taken under guard back to the webway gate... which he was now obligated, by truce, to deactivate. No longer trusting the eldar to live up to their end of the bargain, Lucullus had giant concrete blocks formed into a metres-thick wall on the realspace side of the gate. Probably not immune to elf BS, but reassuring nevertheless.
With the Raven Guard chasing down Farseer Vahlkaer's perfidious Ulthwé gits, Lucullus headed off into space to go and whack-a-mole the next reported sighting of Jeff's genestealer cultists...
Game 5: Pursuing the Starborn Souls to Jäegerholm
News came fast. Apparently a force of Black Templars had entered the sector (Harvey's other army) and had encountered a transport vessel with no active transponder. Boarding it revealed SKITTERING THINGS, and Watch-Marshal Ortiz sent out a sector-wide alert to Imperial forces suggesting people make extra efforts to look for, and destroy, ships failing to show the appropriate idents.
Lucullus, aboard the Cobalt Scions strike cruiser Preceptor, chased one such freighter to the feudal knight world of Jäegerholm. Seeing his approach, the freighter made a hurried landing. With the Scions not far behind, the broodlord assigned a force to provide a suicidal rearguard to give the cult time to escape and disperse.
We played Guard the Retreat, a fun scenario from Amidst the Ashes (p42) that's more sensibly balanced than many Crusade missions. It was a great game, with Jeff clearly now getting his eye in with an increasing number of GSC shenanigans, although he was cruelly betrayed by some appalling dice in his first turn, and lost much of his initial force of neophytes to the steady bolter fusillades coming from the advancing boys in blue.
For me the most cinematic moment was seeing multiple squads of genestealers swarming through the trees towards Gaius Atalus, my dreadnought. He lit the woods up with plasma, flames, grenades and missiles, but couldn't thin their ranks enough to stop them bursting from the treeline and rolling over him like a chitinous wave.
|Nope, nope nope nope NOPE! ...crash.
Despite some heroic efforts by some neophytes to damage the marines' gunship, the marines just about weathered the storm, and the rearguard action was a failure. Their lines broken, the Starborn Souls just didn't have enough time to conceal their tracks before I came looking for them.
Game 6: The Purge of Helmgart Manse
The cult had holed up in the recently ruined manse of an Imperial Knight. To quote Jeff, who was getting very into the whole Jäegersholm thing and a good way into selling himself on the concept of painting a knight or two, the dead knight was "Sir Aldebrecht Helmsgart. Fifth of his name. Deposed in the 4302nd year of the Elevation of Jäegersholm by a majority quorum of the Baronial council in punishment for persistent violations of the rules and norms of Jäegersholm."
We set up the board to try and reflect the idea of a ruined knight's house, using the chapel as the residence, and Sector Mechanicus terrain as the knight's dock.
|Residence of knight pilot Sir Aldebrecht Helmsgart (deceased)
Jeff went full hillbilly with his army list. Strong The Hills Have Eyes energy. He was right to do so; aberrants are qutie fruity when deployed against the marines, and Toughness 5 plus -1 Damage makes them difficult to shift.
|The Hills Have Extra Limbs
Unfortunately for Jeff I was able to take them on piecemeal, and this - combined with some fortuitous saves from Lucullus' iron halo - blunted the worst of it. That said I did manage a first: not only did I fail a morale test following the hillbeefies' tenderising, but I then rolled three 1s on my five combat attrition tests. Ow. While Jeff's force was wiped out, and Jäegersholm saved from the menace of genestealer infestation, the sheer power of the aberrants left quite the impression.
|The aberrants kept complimenting Lucullus on having a "nice hat" while also attempting to play rough. Jeff has a way of humanising the absolute worst people the galaxy has to offer.
Game 7: Guess who else is here?
Harvey announced that, following the damage suffered by the Ulthwé strike force during their flight from the vengeful Raven Guard, Vahlkaer had gone to a nice, remote, technologically backwards place to lick his wounds in peace, having casually slaughtered a small village of primitive humans to get easy shelter for the night. Where was this place you ask? Yep, Jäegersholm. Chaplain Verus of the Cobalt Scions encountered him while out patrolling to check there were no hidden genestealers, and immediately attempted an assassination.
The combination of catechism of fire with the rapid fire and squad doctrines stratagems meant that Squad Tyvus impressively got a wave serpent down to 1 wound in the opening shooting phase, and I thought I had things pretty well under control. Then the Black Guardians got out of said wave serpent and wiped out all 10 of Squad Tyvus in a single volley. Ho. Ly. Crap. Jinx, guide, doom, and some veteran guardians are no joke.
All I needed to do was kill Vahlkaer for the game to end, but the 5-man Squad Cassander had to clear the guardians out the way first. In this they were successful, but in so doing would of course have to weather a turn of everything else shooting at them... which of course they didn't. It was like playing a game of chess, with every turn seeing the effective deletion of one unit in each army.
My final turn was all desperate ploys as Vahlkaer continued to slip through my fingers. The impulsor fired, but couldn't finish him off. Squad Lydus crept in on the flank, lined up shots, and almost got rid of him. Desperate, I charged with the impulsor, only needing to do one or two more wounds. As one might expect, that didn't work out.
Vahlkaer retreated to the safety of other screening units, and that was that.
Just to spite me, Harvey made a point of killing the impulsor. Just for good form, you understand.
And who should happen to be within six inches of it at the time? Yep, good guess. There went the last two wounds, brought to you by Patsy's Magic Homing Shrapnel. An undignified end to an undignified retreat, forcing the extremely battered Ulthwé farseer to go home and think about what he'd done. Which, being a farseer, he'd done before he even set out.
Thoughts on Crusade after 17 battles
For all its balance issues and complexity, this is the most fun I've had with 40K in years. Having a narrative through-line is great, and I think hugely enhanced by our group having the Eridani Sector as a persistent storyworld to go with our persistent armies.
There are some things worth bearing in mind, though. With balance being absent, it falls to the players to balance themselves. It would be very easy to make stupid, broken combos that just cancel your opponent's fun. It's also important to enable the story to progress even when someone's been flattened in a game; Jeff's genestealers definitely had a rocky week in terms of wins/losses, but achieved great things beyond that - something I'll leave to him to discuss if he feels so inclined.
I would also rather GW put out fewer mission packs, but put more care into them. Many of the scenarios are either obviously broken (i.e. it's effectively impossible for one side to win) or are more subtly broken, such that you start playing it and then realise how janky it is (Tom says the Fat Bergs scenario is an example of this). Obviously with narrative play it doesn't have to be perfectly balanced, but you want some suspense as to the outcome. Or, if you do want an unbalanced scenario, fine! But make it clear how it's unbalanced in the description.
One thing I wondered going into Crusade was how long it would take to level up units, and actually I think this is one area where it feels about right. Most of my units are blooded, whereas my absolute mainstays (i.e. two squads of intercessors and my dreadnought) have become heroic. I will readily admit I often forget about one battle honour or another, but ah well. I'm getting better at checking.
|It is, to be fair, an increasingly large number of units to keep track of.
I absolutely cannot imagine tracking all this with pen and paper, and it seems insane to me that GW haven't figured out app support for it. On the upside, this means we make our own tools, and to our own specifications. More effort, but ultimately more flexible I think.
Finally, I don't know what I'll do when units become legendary. Keep using them indefinitely, or promote them out of my company such that they go off to do other things? I could for instance say the brothers of squad so-and-so have gone off to join the 1st company, then reset the squad's XP. I could equally have my dreadnought go out in a blaze of glory, then rename him as a new brother is interred. It's a bridge I'll cross when I come to it.
In parting, I must offer my thanks to my fellow gamers for being such excellent people to play toy soldiers with. A week for the ages.
More of this sort of thing, please.