The newest edition of 40K Kill Team – the newbie-friendly entry level format that is about controlling individual miniatures in tight special operation environments rather than grog infested main game of pushing overly large armies on far too small tables – is almost out. And the biggest thing about isn’t Games Workshop finally giving a shit about Kill Team or them asking Heralds of Ruin to change their title. No, it’s the fact that GW actually did something to make Space Marines closer to super human warriors that they are in the fluff.
Space Marines: The Emperor-Crafted Ideal
In the background of Warhammer 40,000, Space Marines are the elites of the galaxy-spanning Imperium of Man. Where the hosts of Imperial Guard are nearly numberless, there’s less than a Marine per single of planet of this great realm. Genetically crafted by the God-Emperor Himself and each an uplift of a promising youngster, the Astartes are the human potential pushed to the limit. They have a dozen special organs implanted to make their bodies transcend the limitations of regular human flesh. An Astartes warrior can spit acid, eat brains to gain information, survive grievous injuries and vacuum, go without sleep for extended periods and more.
They live to fight and train most of the time when they don’t. Their education is very much hands on, with fresh initiates serving as Scouts to learn the basics of battle before donning the power armor to take their turns as Devastators and Assault Marines, studying heavy weapons and close assault respectively. Eventually, they become Tactical Marines, the mainstay troops of a Chapter, having the gear and skills to tackle any foe. Some will advance even further, becoming Veterans, Terminators and heroic leaders. But as a whole, Space Marines are crusading orders of superhuman monks that would be immortal if their duty wasn’t death.
Space Marines: The Plastic-Cast Disappointment
On the tabletop, they’re kinda better than a regular Imperial Guardsman, in that most of their stats are better by a point – except for armor, which is a lot better. This makes a Marine hit his target 3/4ths of a time where a Guardsman can only enjoy accuracy of 50%. Marines are also marginally harder to wound. A Tactical Marine costs as much as 2.5 Guardsmen, with their price only ever decreasing over the years. Currently, nobody wants to field Tacticals: they’re not cost effective when compared with Primaris Space Marines that enjoy having 2 Wounds or Scouts who serve as suicide picket lines. The regular bolter – which fluff describes as .50 cal gyrojet SMG firing diamond-tipped bolts that explode inside the target – surpasses the humble lasgun – which is the laser gun equivalent of a modern assault rifle – by wounding a Guardsman on d6 roll of 3+ rather than on 4+. The new (and much improved) armor penetration system did not grace the most iconic gun in the game, instead granting that AP -1 to Primaris’ Bolt Rifle. And that’s basically all there is to them today.
Basically nothing in the table top game reflects Space Marines being these super human warriors, walking gods that make mere mortal quake in their shadow. When dice are laid down on the table, they’re not a handpicked force of specialists that use speed, peerless skill and centuries of experience to seize the initiative, keep the enemy under pressure and use their gifts to overcome all difficulties. Instead, a player will spam Hellblasters – Primaris Space Marines armed with plasma rifles which relegate Bolt Rifle-armed Intercessors to the trash bin. There’s no downside to stuffing your army with them. Neither is there any finesse or skill in their use – just make sure that your commander auras (letting you reroll 1’s to hit and to wound) stack, and you’re good to go. You’re playing Napoleonic warfare with overly expensive miniatures.
What’s the deal with Kill Team, then?
Transhuman Physiology is a simple rule given to all Marines (including Chaos Space Marine traitors) in Kill Team. It lets them ignore the effects of the first flesh wound. And flesh wound is what happens when a trooper in Kill Team gets wounded but not taken out. They diminish a warrior’s ability in battle: their aim is worse, and they’re easier to take out next time they’re wounded, as well as impacting their morale.
Thus the Physiology rule shows that the time and treasure spent uplifting some scrawny underhive rat into one of the Emperor’s Finest gives them more durability than their Toughness 4 stat implies. This makes them more explicitly like they are in the fluff. I don’t remember when anything like that was done in years. Instead, Marine point costs went down as the number of weapons that can kill them without even allowing an armor save increased. They also accrued of a bunch of ridiculous units (like Centurions) and weapons that were so broken that they made all the other options irrelevant (Grav-anything in 7th edition, Hellblaster plasma guns in 8th).
Heck, even Chapter Tactics – additional layer of rules that modified your army to represent your favorite Chapter – aren’t a unique thing anymore, as all 8th edition armies enjoy similar systems. Meanwhile, the removal of unit number limits (which happened a few editions ago) as well as the introduction ofForce Organization Charts that allow for spamming of any unit type (Elite, Heavy, Fast Attack, even HQ) you desire decisively killed an old lie: that Marines are an elite army with line troops being on par with the enemy elites and with a low number of miniatures you need to paint.
So why are the poster boys of 40K, the most tough and elite of human armies (before Deathwatch and Custodes inexplicably got rules), so lame?
In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, We Can’t Have Nice Things
Well, for one, 40K as a ruleset is not suitable for depictions of Space Marines as badassess. Pick-up battles never factor in such things as the Astartes ability to gain intel via brain eating. Their increased senses over humans (in fact, a Marine has as much awareness as a regular Guardsman) don’t feature anywhere. Some more no-shows: the ability to go without rest, or their resilience in the face of injury, poisons and hostile environments.
The ruleset – or at least the Marine rules – offers nothing that would demonstrate their ability and skill to control the battlefield. There’s no initiative to seize past that pre-game roll, there’s no friction to stoically overcome (especially since actual pinning was never a thing, Pinning no longer exists as a rule and the Morale phase has been gotten), there’s disruption to chain of command to deal with… nothing. Space Marines are just marginally better at standing in a clump and trading shots with another clump of something.
You can’t just blame the scale of the game. Epic Armageddon, the game that put five 6mm scale (fine, 6mm size, 1/300ish scale) Marines on each base and was all about big action, used strategy rating, initiative score and massive And They Shall Know No Fear rule to show that Marines are that much more adept at ignoring both friction and actual damage, as well as acting before the enemy does.
Another reason for not making Marines like they are in the fluff (you know, the thing that sells Warhammer, because the rules certainly ain’t that)? Sheer unwillingness. Space Marines are the poster boys of the game to the point where Marine players might be outnumbering everyone else. There’s a shit ton of plastic Astartes out there. If you suddenly made them like they are in the fluff – and thus expensive points-wise – those people would end up with a lot of Spare Marines. Not only would they not need to buy more manz, they’d probably be selling off some of the surplus. This assumption merrily ignores the possibility that needing to have less Marines would leave players with the money and time to spend on other 40K armies, but that’s how GW rolls. And they can’t make other armies cheaper or weaker to compensate, that would be absolutely infeasible (and bad, and stupid).
Heck, I’m of a conspiratorial mind that Primaris Marines is a hamsfisted way of trying to answer the conundrum of “how do we make Marines tougher AND make the existing Marine players buy more.” The answer, apparently, is introducing a new strand of Space Marines. In time, they will replace the old, smoll ones. That’s how you end up with new, bigger sculpts of Space Marines (so that these giant ubermench are no longer Guardsman size/lacking a torso), a way to make Space Marines tougher without hurting the sales, and make old Marine player rebuy their armies, something that a simple yet radical resculpt wouldn’t do.
In Angry Conclusion
So there we are in a stupid situation where the most popular army of the setting, one that is the most iconic and most pushed, plays probably the least like they are depicted in fluff. Only in side projects like Kill Team can you find some respite, because GW will not find the willingness to make sweeping changes needed to make Space Marines truly superhuman.
On the other hand, GW has spent decades ignoring Orks – the Objectively Best Xeno Race – choosing to instead spin off such “armies” as Deathwatch and Scions, as well as to shower weeaboo blueberries (Tau) with new models and giant robots. Maybe they don’t even know what’s cool.