So… A while back, my friend who GM’s the occasional Warhammer game, and will try different flavors of the genre… That may seem the wrong word, but I consider Warhammer pretty much a sub-genre of its own at this point in gaming. Anyway, he did us a game where we were playing some Raven Guard. I’ve even still got the mini he did for me. My guy was a librarian psyker of some sort I seem to remember. So when I heard that there were some new codexes coming out for the Raven Guard and the Iron Hands, my ears pricked up. Here was a Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes I already knew about! How often does this happen? Hardly ever, that’s how. I even knew a TINY bit about the Iron Hands, cos my friend knows how much I’m into cyber-people, robots, the Borg and all that. So I want to remember him mentioning them too. But the Ravens got the nod when we tried it out. I remember so little because… Have you ever had someone who was SO into a thing try to explain a detailed and long reaching background on a thing? Like the one comedy monologue, the concepts were flying fast and furious, and mostly speeding past me as though I were Dave Bowman at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And made about as much sense. No slight on my pal. But that was a deep pool for Your Noobness to jump into.
So, now that it’s in my professional interest, let’s have a look at these two chapters of the Astartes myself. The best lessons after all, are self-taught.
I actually skimmed over these this morning with the Podcast in mind. But that was while I was eating cereal and planning out my day. So how much stuck? Not much. Don’t cram for a test, kids. It never works. Anyway. Having a look at the Iron Hands, I see that they’re part of a group of chapters referred to often as the Shattered Legions. Both of our chapters here fall under that umbrella. Both took part in an assault on the planet, Istvaan V along with the Salamanders. And all three were ambushed by the heretic Warmaster Horus. In what was called the Drop Site Massacre of Istvaan V, these three legions found themselves all but decimated. And in particular, the primarch of the Iron Hands, one Ferrus Manus (Really? He’s actually NAMED ‘Iron Hands’ Ferrous = Iron. Manos = Hands. I’m a Mystery Science Theater fan, and I know what Manos means, even if I don’t speak Spanish.) was beheaded by a Slaaneshi demonblade. Betrayed by his closest battle-brother, Fulgrim of the Emperor’s Children.
Now… Your Noobness here may not have a complete understanding yet. But I’m getting there. And I kind of get the near-godlike reverence the chapters seem to have for their Primarch leaders and founders. So the idea that one was beheaded by treachery while fighting the forces of chaos? I can see as that would probably send a chapter WAY over the deep end. And in this case, the surviving Iron Hands have been stoking their hatred, denial and transferrence of anger and frustration onto others for a solid ten-thousand years. Hatin’s their code. They lives and dies by their hate. (Thank you Poopdeck Pappy.) Now me? I can’t imagine being that filled with hatred for more than a day. Much less twice the span of recorded history. This may be why I gave my pal a pass when he suggested them to me. I wonder if this is where the stereotype comes from of Space Marines being angry as a default mode. Now again… my pal had some good intentions here. Why do I say that?
I have an abiding interest in cyber-augmentation. There’s no science fiction setting I won’t at least investigate or patronize when it comes to whole cyber-augmented races, or straight up inorganic robotic races. Were the singularity to come along, and some clever A.I. figured out how we could realistically replace the cellular substrate of our brains with nano, effectively immortalizing us? If I were able to upload out of this meat before it dies on me? Where do I sign up? Get me outta here. Do it yesterday. Do it twice.
So of course my pal suggested the Iron Hands to me. Becuase they believe the flesh is weak. It’s their warcry. Their Primarch, Ferrous Manos, the Hands of Fate, was said to have had hands encased in living iron after fighting with a metal serpent. And they emulate their fallen leader to the last man with fanatic devotion. The first thing to go is their hand. Immediately replaced with Cyber. And over their years of service, they lose more and more of their meat bodies for superior technological replacement. To the degree that they even shed some of the super-gene-seed gene-geneered organs that made them Space Marines in the first place in favor of the strength and superiority of metal. Some of the eldest and most experienced of them are said to be nothing but internal organs and a brain, suspended eternally in the armors they inhabit. And their leaders, the Iron Council, aren’t just suits of armor with a few squishy bits. Those guys are implanted into the chassis of Dreadnoughts. (I get you, GM. Subscribing to the Grimm theory of linguistic drift do we? I see how you’re playing.)
And that puts me oddly in mind of another race from a different piece of Sci-Fi. A genetically mutated brain, reduced to superiority, xenophobia and hatred? Sealed in a cybernetic war-chassis for the sole purpose of waging endless war? That sounds like the Daleks to me. Have a read up on them sometime if you want to see why I’m making that connection. It does line up.
Further, these hate-filled engines of destruction are pretty equal opportunity when it comes to spreading that hatred around. They despise the forces of Chaos. They despise the traitors that gave in to that chaos during the Horus Heresy. They despise the Loyalist forces of The Emperor of Mankind for letting it happen, and allowing the situation that took their Primarch from them. They even especially hate the Salamanders and the Raven Guard for not fighting hard enough alongside them on Istvaan V. Whether that’s true or not is entirely irrelevant. Your concerns are irrelevant. They are the Iron Hands. Your blasphemous existence and/or form will be eliminated.
Robocops they ain’t. This is the chapter you play if you’ve REALLY got a lot of steam to blow off, I believe. They’re not gonna be my jam though.
Now the Raven Guard is an entirely different pillowcase full of black feathers. And if you’re still with me after that lengthy comparison, stick around. That’s the one I went with. These guys got more than decimated at Istvaan V as well. But these guys… they’re more you emo-smart-guys. They’re your armored ninja-corps. They’re the ones you play if your class of choice in any RPG is a stealth, snipe and surgical strike forces. They didn’t go stark cybernetically-augmented hate-bonkers like the IronManos Corps.
They didn’t lose their Primarch in the Horus Heresy like the Iron Hands did. At least… not immediately. So you can see why the DalekBorg Marines were more than a bit honked off with them. But the Raven Lord, ‘Corus Corvax‘. … Another choice name from GW. Literally… BIG RAVEN. Yeah. I asked my boss Caleb about that. It was apparently funny to name stuff like that back then.
The Raven Lord’s big thing was speed, stealth, and precision. The brief wasn’t fighting HARDER. It was fighting SMARTER. For that matter, several of the Raven Guard seem to be regarded as more intellectual than most Space Marines. However, successful as they were in battle, the Drop Site Massacre laid them low. And they took it hard. Instead of coming at it like the Iron Hands did, they retreated back to their own planet and thought about it. And when I say think, maybe I should say obsessed unhealthily about it. They dropped into texts and books and all manner of research to solve the problem of their dwindled numbers. And here’s where the crazy came in. Corax went deep into figuring out how to accelerate gene-seed replication and implantation to make many, many more neophyte Ravens. And they produced some monstrous mutants in the experiments they failed at. It was such a shameful thing for them, it’s something they never speak of. (‘Exactly how unspeakable?’ ‘OH WE DARE NOT SPEAK IT!‘) So shameful, in fact, that in the end, even though the Ravens were eventually repopulated, Corvus Corax was so ashamed, he locked himself away for a year and brooded. It is unclear whether he was listening to Death in June or Dead Can Dance that whole time. (It could have been Linkin’ Park for all we know.) And then he left for the Eye of Terror, and never came back.
Okay then. Too bad really. It wasn’t his fault. The gene-stock had been tainted by Alpha Legion spies for the forces of Chaos.
Now it looks like to me, the Emperor always intended for them to be stealth unit. But I’m thinking they decided after their betrayal by Horus at Istvaan V that frontal assaults are not their thing. (Big Bird argued against it even then.) Since then, these guys only do a frontal assault as a last resort. Nowadays, these guys hit from ambush and shadow. They don’t even use distance weaponry for the most part, tending to stick to melee with lightning claws. I wouldnae think that going all melee stealth in what looks like 1 to 3 ton power-assisted battle armor would work. But these guys rock that aesthetic. If you’re familiar with the part of any game or movie where someone’s enemy is hopping out of the shadows to hit or kill you, then are gone again as quickly? That’s the Raven Guard. Only with power assisted Wolverine claws. Seriously, they’re made of Adamantium. And usually artifact-quality ones adorn the armor of the vets and commanders.
The initial ones were even recruited out of the ‘asiatic dustlands’. Essentially the emperor took all their firstborn and raised em up into swift and stealthy Adeptus Astartes to keep the place quelled. I’m seeing several tropes here. Cold and distant like strategic Samurai. How some of them suicided against their enemies during the unification wars on old Earth. Before they got their primarch, Corvus, they tended to get used a lot by Horus as a compliment to his own Chapter, the Luna Wolves. Which I suppose makes the Iron Hands doubly suspicious of their motives in the present. That’d be pretty needless. Corvus broke with Horus on spending most of his chapter in a doomed strategy before the Drop Site Massacre ever happened. But I’m not sure people are accusing the Iron Hands of being reasonable nowadays.
And then of course they were reduced from 80,000 troops to 3000 in the Drop Ste Massacre.
And then things got REALLY bad.
They got infiltrated by Alpha Legion traitors during their escape from Istvaan V, who later stole the sample of the Emperor’s Gene Seed the Ravens were using to try and make new Ravens to repopulate themselves. Those traitors ALMOST managed to destroy the Raven Guard’s gene seed as well. So. After all that, they decided to repopulate the old fashioned way. And since they were too few to mage meaningful war against Horus and Chaos, they did smaller surgical strikes on material and resources. And over time, grew into the surgical sneaky Chapter they are today. Their lessons came at horrendous cost, it would seem. And they’ve never regained the size and strength they had in the days before Horus’s betrayal. And that’s the SHORT SHORT version of these emo battle brothers’ story.
I am seeing a lot more of the grimdark here. The zeal of the Chapters for their ‘fathers’ or Primarchs. The tragic consumption of sense by the loss of those leaders. The absolute murder-hatred the Iron Hands feel for everyone, including their own side. Or the festering guilt and loss that hollowed out the survivors of the Horus Heresy among the Raven Guard. I didn’t know half or even a fourth as I’ve learned in the writing of the article. My friend has told me about the rich backstory in some of these chapters. Here’s really the first place I’m seeing it. (I suspect a novel was written here that I’ve not seen yet.) Reading these backstories probably would have allowed me to play those characters a lot more IN character. I still don’t know that I’d have chosen to play at all really. I’m usually into more hopeful settings, or characterizations that extend beyond mere battlefield stats. And the grimdark has been so oppressive for me in the past… I admit, it sometimes puts me off. I feel I still haven’t found THE chapter for me yet. Though I do like the Ravens. They’re the underdogs. (underbirds?) They’re the ones who’ve kept doing what they do despite astounding odds and breaks against them. Maybe there’s where I find an answer to the grimdarkness. The hope and drive that keeps the ravens going, when they should have been wiped out long ago. And unlike the Iron Hands… I wish em the best.
–Edward WinterRose is by small degrees becoming less and less of a Warhammer noob.