My Hopes for the Sisters of Battle

Variance Hammer was on a temporary holiday while I was in Zambia, but a free morning in the hotel and an announcement I’ve been waiting for for years spurred the desire to post.

So here we are. Sisters of Battle confirmed for 2019.

This post is primarily musing about what I’d like to see from that release – albeit a little belated.

The Sisters of Battle are an army close to my heart. The first army I actually owned (rather than just borrowing some Space Marines from my gaming club’s loaner army), I picked them up while I was studying abroad in Ireland right as their 3rd edition book was released. They were the first models I really started trying to push my hobby skills forward on – drilling bolters, converting Saint Celestine into my own character with the wings from Balthasar Gelt – and all the metal pins – and some first, failed attempts at blending to capture fire effects.

The Sisters, being dusted off (literally) a couple years back.

I went to my first tournament with Sisters, and genuinely made it to the top tables before being utterly crushed by a Slaanesh demon army (how times have changed…). For a long time they, and a single inducted squad of Imperial Guard (Sisters had allies before they were cool), were my 40K army.

And then they languished. And languished some more. I drilled out the heads of some metal Grey Knight terminators and replaced them with the plastic helmets from the Immolator set to make Martyr-pattern Tactical Dreadnought Armor, and waited.

And waited some more.

I lost interest as they got placeholder codexes that meant they were playable, but only barely. And model releases? I got three degrees and bought a house in the time between the last Sisters release and the new Celestine.

I’ve been keeping this vigil for awhile.

So what would I like to see out of a new Sisters of Battle release? We’ll split this into three parts: Lore, Models, and Rules.

Lore

The thing that first drew me to the Sisters of Battle was the lore behind them. The idea that they were unaltered humans, the orphans of those who died in Imperial service, asked to face down some of the very worst things the galaxy has offer with only their faith and a bolter. That they are the symbols of the Imperium and the Faith that most Imperial citizens would see – not the Astartes, who exist as rare, distant and removed figures.

But of late, I’ve been feeling a little more disquiet about their narrative space.

Martyrdom

Martyrdom is a huge conceptual space for the Sisters of Battle, and I absolutely don’t want to see it gone entirely. But of late, even if you exclude the notorious Grey Knights fiction, this has turned a little bit into “We kill off some Sisters of Battle to show you how serious things are.”

It happened in the Magnus/Fenris campaign books, with an off handed mention of Sisters fighting below while the Grey Knights and Space Wolves arrived to kill a Bloodthirster – with no further mention of the fate of those not central to the story. It happened in Rise of the Primarch with a single sentence killing off every Sister who survived the Fall of Cadia. Even in the overall pretty decent Sisters of Battle books by James Swallow it’s revealed that Sanctuary 101 was wiped out by the Necrons essentially as an accidental afterthought.

This is not to say that martyrdom shouldn’t be part of the narrative of the Sisters of Battle, but it would be nice if this was shown to have more impact. If it was a central part of the story – a small group of the Faithful holding the line until the last. And if it was purposeful, rather than being another off-hand entry in the wealth of “We killed a woman to set some narrative tension” examples one can find all around fandom generally.

Less of this please

 

Narrative Impact

The Sisters of Battle are a massive, well-equipped standing army. They are more widely distributed than the Space Marines. A Sisters of Battle Canoness is likely one of the best educated individuals on whatever planet she happens to be standing on. They exist in an odd middle-space – not as removed as the trans human Space Marines, but still detached from the general swell of humanity.

It would be interesting to see how such an organization might impact the setting – not just the Church as a whole, but the Sisters of Battle as a separate entity. Especially in the “Dark Imperium” period, where Cawl and Guilleman can very easily be described as tinkering with the Emperor’s plan as it was widely understood. Remember, the founding mother of the Adepta Sororitas also spoke (we believe) to the Emperor.

Central Billing

Combining these two ideas together is the idea of making the Sisters of Battle central in their own stories – I’d like to see this not just in their codex of course, but their codex is a place where this absolutely has to take place.

The Imperium is beset. Worlds are under siege. Travel is dangerous, and pilgrimage moreso. Chaos is the central anatagonist of this latest phase in the Warhammer 40K setting. This is the Sisters of Battle wheelhouse – they were on those worlds before the Astronomicon flickered, and before the Imperium was bisected by a warp storm. Protecting the faithful is their mandate. I’d like to see them lead.

Models

Plastic. Models.

Clearly, this is the biggest issue facing the Sisters right now – core models that are hard to work with, hard to acquire, and expensive as sin. For a long time, I got along with the justification that plastic mold tech wasn’t there yet, but in the age of the beautifully detailed stuff they’re coming out with for Age of Sigmar, this doesn’t hold up anymore. If you can somehow make an accountant being defended by a giant octopus look good, you can manage a fleur-de-lys and some ornate filigree.

Ironically, I think one of the best times for a new Sisters of Battle range was actually a few years ago. Games Workshop has started to move away from the multi-part, highly posable “jack of all trades” kits that were a kitbashers dream toward somewhat harder to convert single pose models that are, admittedly, amazingly detailed.

So what does a more “modern” but revised line look like? I could see two “double-duty” kits, a standard Sisters and Celestian box, and a Retributor/Dominion box. A Seraphim box along the lines of the current design for Celestine’s bodyguards – Games Workshop has been doing really good work with dynamic flying units recently that hopefully carry over. It might even be possible to add in a dedicated close combat type unit there.

Beyond that, and hopefully some dynamic and colorful character models (besides just Celestine, who I would very much like to not see in everyone’s army), there are two models that I’d like to see reworked completely: The Penitent Engine and the Sisters Repentia.

The Penitent Engine: Besides being a nightmare to assemble, I don’t think the Penitent Engine has aged particularly well as a model. I like the concept of the Engine, the fusing of the pious, righteous imagery of the Church with an atrocity. Chris Wraight has one in his book Stormcaller, and it is genuinely horrific. You feel rage and pity and sorrow for the person interred inside it, and the agony they’re enduring. The misapplication of such a terrible device precipitates a major part of the book.

The model? Is a half-naked girl stuck to the front of a robot. It errs towards titillation, and draws far too heavily on sexual imagery to try to convey horror, which is a problem on so many levels. I’d like to see the company that’s done the newer Dark Eldar pain engines, added subtle things like the integrated-human navigation system on the Mechanicus Ironstrider, etc. to take a spin at reimagining it.

The same is true of the Sisters Repentia. They’re one of the ways the martyrdom-narrative gets pushed too far in a fairly uncomfortable direction, and they have always felt to me like they’ve missed the image they’re going for in favor of adolescent male targeted fan service. I’d find models evoking a sort of abandoned desperation, clad in broken and piecemeal armor and bearing whatever they can bring to bear in search of their redemption a far more compelling image than “Naked except for a modesty prayer strip”. Drawing from desperation and faith and zeal as imagery rather than some late-night 80’s “women in prison” B-flick.

On “Boob Plate”

I’ve seen more than my share of defenses of the exaggerated breastplates that make up the iconic “Sisters of Battle” look. I’ve made some of them in my time. And given the sculpt on Celestine, I don’t really expect the Battle Corset ™ look to go away any time soon. But I would very much like to see a design direction closer to the Darkoath Warqueen’s chestplate, which undeniably does suggest she has breasts while also being a fairly sensible piece of armor. Even some of the new Daughters of Khaine figures have armor that manages to be more practical. It wouldn’t take much, and I think it can be accomplished without compromising the overall baroque, almost ornamental armor feel the Sisters have.

Rules

Of course, I’m hoping the Sisters of Battle are good. I think they’re a difficult army to get right at the best of times, and I’d settle for middling viable, but what longtime fan wouldn’t like to hear about a Sisters army running around the top tables at a major tournament. But beyond that, what specifically am I hoping for?

Acts of Faith

Acts of Faith are one of the central gameplay elements of a Sisters of Battle army, and my hope – as it is in every edition – is that Games Workshop does it well. At the moment, the implementation is decent. A nice little buff to a single unit, that lets them do a little bit more in a given turn.

It’s solid, but not my favorite version.

When I think Acts of Faith, I think back to the classic 3rd edition Witch Hunters codex. I loved playing that army, dancing in and out of rapid fire range but trying to stay out of combat, and Acts of Faith were part of that. I like them best when it’s not just “Do a little more” but “Break the rules”. It feels like extraordinary faith, to turn your armor save into an invulnerable save for a turn, to make your Bolters fire at AP -3 on a roll of 6. To suddenly be something a Sisters of Battle unit isn’t normally, because circumstances, and the Emperor, demand it.

A flexible, powerful buff, that’s offset by it being of limited application and duration. It just feels right to me. I honestly have some hope based on the Daughters of Khaine book – there’s some promise in borrowing from those mechanics.

Going their Own Way

For a long time, the Sisters of Battle weren’t actually a full army. They made solid allies, or they made up the bedrock of an Ecclesiarchy army, but they needed other characters, especially priests, to be fully functional. That was one of the things that always annoyed me about the argument that female representation in 40K was “taken care of” via the Sisters – even the “all girl” army was semi-dependent on male characters in order to be functional.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of a church-themed army. A Cardinal run amok, crazed preachers drumming up a militia into a frenzy before marching them into battle. Archo-flaggelants stalking a devastated city. I want that army.

I also want a pure Sisters army. Their fluff often casts them of suspicious of all outsiders – including those in the church. I’d like an isolated convent, or a driven crusading force of Sisters to be a viable option on their own.

Again, I have hope for this. Codex: Drukhari is, I think, an amazing example of making several different forms of an army viable, while also making a combined force powerful in its own right.

 

All in all? The Imperium is in flames, and I’d like to see the Sisters of Battle emerge in this new narrative as a standalone force, with modern rules and narrative that makes them a central part of the story, rather than the plucky sidekicks (at best) or off-screen massacre victims (at worst). I think all the pieces are there, and I think that Games Workshop genuinely wants to execute well.

Let’s do this.

Enjoy what you read? Enjoyed that it was ad free? Both of those things are courtesy of our generous Patreon supporters. If you’d like more quantitatively driven thoughts on 40K and miniatures wargaming, and a hand in deciding what we cover, please consider joining them.

3 Comments


  1. I couldn’t agree more with you, especially about the martyrdom bit. Sisters martyring themselves every time they’re mentioned would be like every time a Commissar character entered a room, he executed a trooper, just to remind people that that’s thematically related to his position in the series. There’s a difference between a culture of venerating martyrs and literally dying with every passing mention.

    By only having one human faction with non-trivial female models, they’ve made the stakes extremely high for themselves here. It’s more than just “ah, the new Typhus model is weirdly posed” and more “This is what we, as a company, have to say about 3.5 billion humans.” I really, really don’t want GW to blow this one. I already feel like I’ve given them so many second chances and I just don’t want to have to add another item to the list of things I turn a blind eye to in order to enjoy my hobby

    Reply

    1. I’m definitely in the same camp.

      Reply

  2. I tend to agree. I think a lot of things, like boob plates on Sisters of Battle, wouldn’t be a big issue if there was a lot more representation of “normal” women in 40k.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *