On Themed Armies

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to make a post (a very long and much needed vacation and the academic job hunting season will do that…) and while I’ve got some more quantitative things in the works, I thought it might be worthwhile to start off with some “softer” posts, focused on one of the hobby aspects of 40K I enjoy the most – themed armies and narrative gameplay.

First up: How do you go about building a themed army in the first place?

First, some background on why I like themed armies, and why I think I have any standing to talk about them. I like them because it gives you an additional avenue through which to explore your hobby, and a way of bringing life to your force. Narrative play – why your army is doing what it’s doing, what is it trying to accomplish on this mission, etc. flows more easily when your army isn’t “Space Marine Captain’s Collection of Theoretically Optimal Troops” (unless you’re playing Ultramarines…). And finally, it gives you a quick way to inform how you build and play your army. And none of this requires pages and pages of fan fiction or anything like that – these are just ways to go about building and playing your force in the bog standard version of Warhammer 40K.

As to why I think I can talk about this? The short answer is that all my armies are themed. I even made a themed army for Warmachine once, which let me tell you was an odd experience. This is simply how I play the game. Also, I once won a contest for the theme behind a Dark Angels successor chapter in the ancient and storied days of the internet, when men were men and web-rings were still a thing. But basically, I’m talking about this because I can’t really bring myself to build armies any other way.

Making a Themed Army

There are a number of ways to make a themed army – building off a concept for army construction, building around a character, or a narrative concept. Or more likely, a combination of all of these. I’ll discuss three of my armies, each of which have slightly different approaches to how I made them

The Void Wind Corsairs (Eldar Corsairs using Codex: Eldar)

I’ve always liked the idea of Eldar Corsairs – moody, morally flexible, and totally capable of dispensing with normal Eldar high-mindedness in favor of “Lets steal some things!”. But how do you actually end up with a theme for that, beyond just “Like Eldar, but pirates…”

The answer in this case was putting some restrictions on army composition. I came up with two rules:

  1. No one touches the ground. No unit in my army, unless they choose to, has to touch the ground. I thought this would give the army a very hard hitting, mobile feel. It also accidentally meant using a bunch of Wave Serpents, which was a nice bonus. But this meant lots of jetbikes, Guardian squads in Wave Serpents, Crimson Hunters, etc.
  2. No Ghost Troops. This army is made up of those fleeing the harsh restrictions of the Craftworld (or their enemies in Commorragh). That means no ancient, “Break in Case of Emergency”, semi-blasphemous constructs loaded up with Eldar spirits from the Infinity Matrix. No Wrath Knights, Lords, Hemlocks, etc.

This then got followed up with some modeling – mostly aggressively mixing the Guardian, Kabalite and Wych kits, which go together beautifully and making slightly more aggressive looking jetbikes – the Eldar cowl on a Dark Eldar bike chassis. Going along with “No Ghosts” rule, it felt a little funny to have Aspect warriors, so instead I’ve been modeling them as heavily armored Corsairs, veteran troops with the appropriate weaponry, like these Dire Avengers:

The Huntsmen

My Dark Angels successor chapter (abandoned for the moment in hopes that someday, maybe, Games Workshop will give them a functional codex not immediately superseded by a Space Marine codex…) was instead built on a narrative concept, or rather two of them:

  1. What if, instead of the Fallen being this shades-of-grey-maybe-goodguys thing that so many people like, they were just out and out baddies?
  2. What if the Dark Angels were clever enough to create a Successor Chapter that was meant to be helpful to deflect attention from their skulking all over the galaxy, randomly leaving campaigns for follow rumors, etc.

Enter the Huntsmen (formerly the Angels Imperious), a Dark Angels successor chapter that was narratively supposed to be helpful – and who had their home world devastated by an attack by Chaos Space Marines led by some Fallen – who then turned toward the Hunt while trying to stay true to their original mission of guarding Segmentum Solar, ensuring that the sons of the Lion would never again be absent from the defense of Holy Terra. Again, there are some impacts on army composition:

  1. I like taking Allies.
  2. There are some consequences for losing their home world and becoming a fleet-based Chapter: They’ve lost nearly all their vehicles, meaning very few to no tanks or Ravenwing-type units, and they don’t have the manpower to indulge in having lots of Scouts, so instead they tend to rush their troops into powered armor and teach them from there. This could manifest itself in taking some “counts-as” Blood Claws, but sticking purely with the codex, I tend to say these are the troops in the Devastator squads.

So there’s some theme in the army composition, and some theme that comes into how the army is played – using the Hunt rules from the Dark Angels codex, but not quite as “all in” as the lads in green.

The Great Company of Egil Moonbreaker

Egil Moonbreaker’s Great Company is an example of how you can still build a themed army around an existing Codex, without going your own way.

And yes, Egil did once break a moon. That kind of thing is why I love playing Space Wolves.

This army is built around that single character – how to justify that name, the story behind it, and the army that stands behind him. The issue? Games Workshop has fleshed out all the current Great Companies.

So first we have to go back in time – the Great Company is, effectively, a “35K” army – it’s an army of the past, but not quite Heresy-era. And we clearly need to feature Egil. So again, how do these manifest as army composition rules?

  1. Clearly, we need a kitted out Wolf Lord.
  2. 35K opens up some new units – including older Marks of armor, having more Forge World heresy-era vehicles, etc. But this stuff should look old by this point, battle worn relics of a lost age, barely being kept together.
  3. “Egil Moonbreaker” seems like someone who does a lot of stuff in space. So I decided to make some boarding-themed Space Wolves. Which means Drop Pods, the new Stormfangs (which have a lot of visual elements with the assault rams), not a lot of tanks and no Thunder Wolves (I can’t see those running down tight corridors…). And Wolf Guard Terminators. Glorious, glorious Wolf Guard Terminators.

Informally, there’s another theme – “It’s No Lupus”. I don’t like that “Wolf-themed Space Vikings” has been more Wolf and less Viking recently, so this army avoids some of those things – the wolf-head helmets, the aforementioned Thunderwolf cavalry, and tries to play off the Viking bit – shoulder pads painted like historical viking shields, etc.

So there we go – three slightly different ways to theme an army that influences how you build and play them, but still leaves you with functional, decently composed lists, and a way to inject a little narrative into games without either reams of fluff or necessarily having to have a narrative campaign going.

Have some thoughts, or themed armies you want to share? Leave a comment, or send me a tweet to @variancehammer.


  1. I cooked up a 400 pt Astra Militarum army based on stereotypical Soviet Russian design cues:

    * Everything is Valhallan – I even tracked down some OOP desant troopers.
    * Conscripts with a Commissar for summary executions
    * A Deathstrike Missile Launcher that’s vaguely somewhere between a Topol-M ICMB vehicle and a Vostok rocket.

    On the table, they perform as expected. The infantry dies in droves (often due to the Commissar) while waiting for the Deathstrike’s doomsday clock to count down. Once it chimes there’s either a wonderfully-large explosion or a complete whiff – either way, it’s a lot of fun!



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