Designing a Chapter
“My chapter is called The Lords of Pawnage and they own. They’re totally hard and mean and even the Grey Knights say they’re the best fighters in the galaxy. And the Emperor himself got off his throne and ordered them to be better than any other chapter, and…”
Sigh. I’ve been playing and painting for a few years now, and whenever I hear something like this, I end up wanting to put my head in my hands. The Space Marines are by far the most popular army in 40k, and are often the one with which players start. It’s always a shame, then, when people do the same tired things when creating a chapter. In this article, I hope to suggest ways of approaching a new chapter, so that you end up with something that’s interesting, unusual and still has the capability to kick backside on the battlefield. I’ve divided the article in two: firstly, the more practical side of thinking up how your army will look and why, and secondly, a (very) rough guide to how to approach writing background.
Of course, these are just my opinions: feel free to ignore them as you wish. But a marine chapter is like a character from a book – just saying he’s tough won’t make him interesting. Something more is needed, preferably something original or just cool. And frankly, in a galaxy where the Dark Angels and the Legion of the Damned are on the side of mankind, a chapter whose only distinguishing feature is how grim and covered with skulls they are may not stand out that much…
So, how should you go about designing a chapter? To my mind, it’s a lot like creating a character in a story. Like the hero of a novel, the best chapters have a personality of their own and the strengths and weaknesses that entails – there’s a lot of difference between a Space Wolf and an Ultramarine, for example. You know that, chances are, a Space Wolf is going to be rough, hearty and keen on fighting things up close (he may also have red hair and an unusual smell, but let’s not stereotype too much). The typical Ultramarine, however, will be disciplined, organised and more willing to take down the enemy from long range.
Here then are some ideas – hooks, if you like, on which you can use as a starting-point to hang the look and character of your chapter:
1) Colours. Got a favourite colour? Really like the idea of violet marines? Then why not paint them like that. You may well find that the chapter background flows from there. A reddish-orange chapter might come from a world a bit like Mars, and have painted their armour in memory of their homeworld. Those chequered patterns on their shoulder pads might be their founder’s heraldry.
In a world of block-coloured plate armour, a chapter of well-painted, original marines will really stand out. Although not very fashionable at the moment, it seems, the brighter, more heraldic chapters like the Howling Griffons and Storm Lords look incredible when painted well.
2) Chapter philosophy/history. Some chapters are obsessed with one particular aspect of the 40k world – take the Iron Hands, for example. Their fascination with technology leads to them having large amounts of bionics. A chapter of penitents might all wear a ball and chain, or be covered in sacred texts. What would a chapter look like who particularly revered their librarians? Or their battle banners, or apothecaries, or whatever?
3) Real history. Several existing marine chapters are futuristic versions of people from history. The Black Templars are like crusading knights, whereas the Space Wolves are a lot like Vikings. More subtly, the Ultramarines use a lot of Roman symbols.
Most cultures have produced heroic warriors that could be the starting-point for a marine army: Apaches, Incas, Prussian lancers and so on. Even if they didn’t wear plate armour, their culture can be reflected in their power armour. My own chapter, the Sons of Empire, are inspired by Victorians. Their armour is polished brass and covered in bolts and scrollwork, as was much of the machinery of that time.
4) Battlefield Practicalities. A friend of mine feels that armour should be painted the same way whether it’s on a tank or a space marine. So, he airbrushed his marine chapter in the same way that historical modellers paint tanks. He painted in the details later, but left some of the ornamentation – skulls on armour and so on – painted in camo. His logic is that his marines rely on stealth to survive. It’s unusual, and although some players don’t approve, to my mind it works because it suits his chapter’s circumstances. Similarly, a chapter known for its long missions may use a lot of repaired and battered armour, perhaps with many trophies from one particular foe.
There are many more ways to do this, but these are a few of the easiest hooks on which to “hang” a chapter. Once you’ve got an idea behind your chapter, you can design their armour and background around that idea, perhaps adding some Traits from the marine codex to represent their character on the field.
The Horror that is Fluff
Now comes the tricky bit – fluff, ie background material. Note that you don’t have to write reams of the stuff, or any of it at all: it’s just nice to be able to fit your chapter into the 40k universe. Be warned, though: people vary immensely about what they’ll consider acceptable fluff or not. Some players are very defensive about the ways a marine is recruited, others get irked if a chapter starts being too “nice” and so on. It’s up to you to decide what level of criticism is fair enough and what isn’t. As a rule, the forums on L.O. are very good for sounding out what’s possible, and the help is pretty constructive.
Certain things need to be remembered when working out fluff for a chapter. Firstly, and most importantly, How do they fit into the Imperium? The Imperium is a big place, and many chapters have their own mini-empires of planets they control, just as the Ultramarines have Ultramar. Such empires can vary enormously, but they are all part of one big over-empire, and as such are all technically answerable to the Inquisition, and to Earth.
Some principles apply across the whole Imperium. Whatever planet you’re on, tithes may have to be paid to the Imperium, either as money, goods, Guardsmen, Marines, leisure facilities or whatever else you can think of. All planets run the risk of producing psykers, to different degrees, and may be obliged to export their psykers for sacrifice to the Emperor on Earth. Many marine chapters are linked to the Imperium by debts of honour – and all can be ordered to carry out work for the good of the Emperor. Of course, a wily Chapter Master may be able to negotiate his way out of this, or to reinterpret some of the orders he receives to his own benefit. But one who simply declares himself independent and doesn’t get out of Imperial space very quickly will soon have a lot of trouble coming his way.
Similarly, the marines themselves may have different ways of living – but all can be guaranteed to train hard and be tough as old boots. Marines in a codex chapter may spend their time living like warrior monks, praying and fighting all day long. More feral marines may simply walk into the wilderness and fight monsters for practice.
Most marines live together, away from the populace: the Salamanders don’t, and your chapter needn’t either. Your guys may spend their time praying, meditating or giving inspiring talks to the community – but no matter what, they’ll need to be able to fight.
(A small aside. The question of whether a marine would have a family – or whether he’s got the inclination or equipment to do so at all – is always guaranteed to get a vigorous argument going. You’re best off avoiding this issue. The average marine is celibate, whether by choice or necessity).
If your chapter’s history involves any of G.W.’s characters, be a bit wary. Raven Guard players won’t be impressed if you claim that your Chapter Master once scared Captain Shrike into running (well, flying) away. The motto here is not to do anything that treads on anyone’s toes or can’t fit alongside the existing fluff: your chapter may have tried to capture Ahriman – they may even have met him on the battlefield – but they’ve clearly not killed him because in the current edition of 40K, he’s still alive. Pretty obvious, really.
In conclusion, the galaxy is a very big place, and the further you are from Earth, the harder it gets for the Ecclesiarchy and the Ordo Hereticus to make everyone behave exactly as they want. Just keep it reasonable, and remember that there’s plenty of ways to make an interesting chapter history without your chapter master having beaten up the Emperor in a fight and waltzed off to make his own rival empire. Balance is everything: a chapter that worships Chaos is going to get splattered sooner or later, no matter what, but what about a chapter that tries to use Chaos artefacts for the good of the Imperium? Relictors, anyone?
My Own Chapter – an example
The reason I’m talking about my own chapter is not that I’m claiming it’s especially good, just that it’s the only chapter I know from the inside, so to speak. Seeing how I went about it might inspire someone else – not to follow exactly, but to use the same principles to invent something of their own.
I love the look of Victorian machinery: all the polished brass and scrollwork, the primitive levers and steam-powered technology looks really cool. When I started my marines I wanted to reflect this look in their armour. I chose a brass and Dark Angels Green colour scheme, as DA green is similar to traditional British racing green, with red chest-plates to suggest the red uniforms 1890’s soldiers used to wear. To reflect the bolted-together look of Victorian technology, I stuck bolts cut from spare Ork weapons onto the armour. I cut the backpack vents and turned them upward, so they would be spouting steam like chimneys behind the marine’s head.
To continue the theme, I painted decorative scrollwork on the armour and gave some of the marines pith helmets and large moustaches made from Green Stuff. Vehicles were fitted with new exhaust funnels, extra bolts and more ornate, primitive-looking guns taken from Orks and Chaos marines. Several have Victorian girls’ names, like WW1 tanks: the Land Raider’s kill markings show that it has destroyed some of H.G. Wells’ Martian war machines. By working out the ways I could suggest the theme, and repeating them through the army, I was able to make the same concept run through the entire force, giving them a strong visual identity.
Now that I had a painted and converted force, I decided to write the fluff. I wanted them to reflect the real Victorians: tough, confident, and eager to increase their power. Like the Ultramarines, they would have a small empire of their own, which they’re eager to enlarge by capturing more territory. They prefer putting aliens to work, rather than wiping them out – a policy which would not be much liked by the Adeptus Terra.
So, I’ve positioned them close to the galactic edge, where the Inquisition’s control is weaker, and said that frequent warp-storms have isolated them from the Imperium and encouraged their culture to develop on its own. They keenly protect their own population, but regard aliens and other chapters as foreign and not quite right – much like their historical counterparts. Their history is one of conquest and a desire to expand their own influence – reflecting the era they’re based upon.
What this means is that they won’t play a massive part in the history of the Imperium – but to my mind, that’s a small price to pay for having invented something I can be proud of and genuinely call my own.