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.