Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beyond Rogue Trader: Ultramarines

If you are a Oldhammer fanatic, it's easy to bash the miniatures of the 1990's as clunky, awkward, and abnormally prone to splaying their limbs. Sweet Jebus - why did they think that men charging into battle would start doing jumping jacks? Don't they know that you can ruin your back if you hold a two-handed sword at arm's length for too long?

Well, before I completely lose my shit and fall into a foaming nostalgia rage, I want to qualify myself. There were still some beautiful sculps coming out of Citadel after 1990, and I'm going to show some favourites from my collection in this post, all of them Ultramarines. The best of the best, in my view, is Jes Goodwin's solid metal Space Marine Dreadnought (1994).

Dreadnoughts should be awkward and clunky, so I guess Goodwin's sculpture played straight into the prevailing aesthetic of the Citadel studio. Its square posture broadcasts power. But more than this, this is a well balanced figure: The smooth shapes of its armoured surfaces contrast beautifully with the textured machinery in the rear of the figure and under the plates.

I decorated the miniature with some modern plastic bits, like purity seals and a laurel crown. The inscription on his right plate ("VAE VICTIS") means woe to the conquered.  The battle damage is silver paint applied to the edges of the armour, sometimes with an outline in black or grey. I distressed and rusted the gears by applying thin washes of Chestnut Ink... ah, the long out-of-production Chestnut Ink from Games Workshop. I still have the first bottle I bought (about 10 years ago), and I carefully dole it out like precious saffron, since I don't believe I'll ever see its like again. Urk. I can feel the nostalgia rage coming over me again.

Speaking of nostalgia, in my last post I wrote about the role-playing elements in the original Rogue Trader rules set (1987). I received a lot of thoughtful responses, several of them pointing out that more recent editions of Warhammer 40K have tried to re-insert a role-playing feel into the game, but that there's some resistance from 40K players, who just want tournament play.

And yet, I still think there's something special about Rogue Trader. But what? Over the past week, I've been flipping through my battered copy of RT, and comparing it with the most recent Warhammer 40K edition that I own (5th edition published in 2008). It's hard to fault the more recent version: it's a polished book, with pithy text, spacious pages, and lots of bright colour photos of well painted dioramas.

In contrast Rogue Trader is primitive. It's predominately printed in black and white, with just a few grainy photos of miniatures. Although illustrations abound, they are by almost a dozen different artists, resulting in a confusing aesthetic. The text is dense and long as the King James Bible -- if there was an editor, he had a light touch, or simply died of fatigue. And the layout is cramped, with a self-conscious effort to make the page look like a blue-print or a technical manual.

All of these elements should make Rogue Trader a disaster. But they don't -- in fact, they make it a classic. And I think the reason is because the claustrophobia in the pages of Rogue Trader oppresses the reader with the claustrophobia of 40K universe. The book causes sensory overload, in the same way that you would be overwhelmed when entering a Chapel of the Administorum or when walking the galleries of a Hive World. In other words, this book didn't just describe a game -- it was a portal into a different world.

But this sort of stunning success is its own undoing. The profits and popularity of Rogue Trader led to better production values for subsequent editions: colour printing, tighter writing and cleaner layout. All of these improvements are generally good things... but none of them conjure up the shadowed world of the Rogue Trader.


  1. Fantastic paint jobs. The green equipment accents work really well.

    I believe I had some old GW chestnut ink I could send you. It's from the original expert paint set (which I inherited from an older brother). Looks sorta toxic orange and smells funny? It seems to foam up a bit when you mix it and has a bit of sediment....not really sure if these things go off though. I don't think I've used if for years, so it makes more sense to get it to someone who would.

  2. Have you looked at the Cote D'Arms paint range? I've been told they were the people who were making the paints and inks for GW in that era, and they still have a very similar range. I don't believe they've changed much but the names.

  3. As it happens, I've I just finished painting the Blood Angel version depicted in your link- an iconic and impressively heavy model indeed.
    I see you have added purity seals in a couple of places, nice touch.
    Your Ultramarines look really nice Matthew, I salute you.

  4. Daveb (Dave B.?) - That is a very kind offer! One of the things that's floored me since starting this blog is how generous Oldhammer people are. It really amazes me. I'm going to check out the Cote D'Arms range -- there are a couple old Citadel colours that I really miss (including the greens that I used to paint those weapons), but if the ink is not the same, I will surely take you up on your offer!
    And Bruno - thanks for the encouragement - have you posted a pic of this mini yet? I'd love to see him.

    1. I'm a bit less adventurous/ by the numbers, but here it is

    2. Let me know. I'd be interested to hear about how the Cote D'arms works out for you. I have also heard they are essentially the old GW paints. Wondering how true this is.

  5. My favourite Dreadnought model ever, but you just made it look absolutely gorgeous. I must say the same about the other Marines, you got the perfect RT vibe for them. Absolutely great :)