So a few months back, Cadian Shock wrote a post entitled Titanicus – What Reading A Book Told Me About 40K. It’s a good post, on an excellent blog. You should go read it.
Then you should come back here so I can talk about why I disagree.
But if you don’t want to do that, the TL;DR version is this: “They’re boring”.
He extends this to both fiction and the tabletop, and I find myself disagreeing with both – possibly because I rather liked Titanicus, but mostly because I think Titans, Superheavies and the like affirmatively have a place in 40K, and can make for compelling stories and gameplay.
For the sake of brevity, when I say “Titan” you can assume I’m talking about any large model – an actual Titan, a Knight, a Baneblade or anything else of that scope.
Titans in Narrative
First, I’ll be blunt – boringly written Titans are boring. It is absolutely possible to poorly write a Titan as an invincible God Machine, striding across the battlefield without a care in the world. It’s easy to write an Imperator or Warlord Titan as the 40K equivalent of “Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies”.
Cadian Shock’s interest, somewhat unsurprisingly given the name, is closer to the troops on the ground, in the mud and cut off from communication. And I get that – I really do. And it’s something I’ve seen before – a desire to focus on the “little guy” with the belief that there’s greater drama and connection there. My problem with that, perhaps, is that train of logic eliminates almost everyone you could write about in 40K. Lets face it, if you’re talking about powerful foes immune to most of the “small” parts of battles, the Primarchs are right out. So are most Space Marine heroes – Betrayer was hilarious for having Kharne and Argel Tal having a conversation while scything through Ultramarines left and right.
Space Marines generally are out as well – between the “posthuman mentality” Space Marine writers talk about a lot and their place in the setting, they too are immune from any kind of drama you could connect with. Sisters of Battle fall in the same category.
Which leaves you with Guardsmen. And even then – not really. The Gaunt’s Ghosts series has some preternaturally skilled men and women, and they have a heft amount of plot immunity to them as well. So basically, my issue is if you follow that down, you get this weird spiral that ends in “Anything but a terrified conscript is boring”.
The thing is, Primarchs and Space Marines and Titans can be fun to read about. Because they put a human face on what would otherwise be conflicts you can’t really think about in terms of scale (humans are bad at imagining very large, and very small, numbers). You can follow Angron or Lorgar or Russ across a battlefield, and a pack of Space Wolves means you have five names, and five stories, you can follow across a war. The same is true for Titans – the crew of a Titan are still people. In Betrayer for example, you see elation and fear and petty jealousy, predatory hunger and pride and the growing sense you might be on the wrong side – all in a battle featuring 3 Primarchs and their attendant Legions. Similarly, in Mechanicum, the horror of that betrayal impacts single people, even when you’re talking about a war tearing apart a planet.
But because they’re in a Titan, it’s possible they’ll be there for the turning point, and influence it. It’s basically the Sharpes series vs. Horatio Hornblower – it’s all human drama, but the question is does your agency in the setting boil down to a rifle, or a ship of the line?
And sometimes, I want to see someone sound the warhorn and wade into a properly titanic battle, without losing the ability to follow individual characters.
Titans in Gaming
Here things get tricky – Cadian Shock notes that a particular “1 Knight + Sisters vs. 4 Knights” battle report was…a little dull. And again, that’s fair. I’d assert poorly balanced games with units like that are boring, because no one wants to play a game of “…and then I remove a bunch of models from the table”, and certainly no one wants to watch it.
But again, that just means badly balanced games are bad. My tournament Eldar vs. my brother’s fluffy Deathwing (last place at the LVO 40K Friendly FTW!) is a pretty boring game to watch as well. Belial drops in, some Eldar die, and then the next turn his army melts in a hail of gunfire.
But single Knight on Knight fights can be a blast, an honor duel in the center of the board while you fight around them. Or a scenario built around killing the Titan, so the stakes are high for everyone but the other player has a fighting chance. And these games have the potential for fun at every level – the two MVPs of a recent Apocalypse match were a Scorpion super-heavy tank, and a squad of Rangers. Both had some hilarious moment, some fun, and some genuine tension to them.
And one of my favorite moments in gaming is still back in 3rd Edition, prior to Apocalypse coming out, when every Dreadnought anyone had all charged the only Warhound any of us had ever seen. They are centerpieces to games, but as long as you balance things carefully, they don’t dominate those games. And sure, you could do without them, but again, this ends with “Conscript Squads for Everyone!”.
Narrative in Gaming
And here we get to the thing I really like about Titans and other super-heavies. They’re very much units you can make into individual characters. They should be lovingly painted. They should have a backstory. You should be able to cry “Engine Kill!” when you take out an opponent’s Titan. I mentioned in my post on building themed armies that building things around a character is a good way to start. Titans are another – because they are so big, they should have their own stories, and rare will be the battles where they do nothing. And you won’t have to wonder which member of your Command Squad finally did X awesome thing.
Just as a simple example, I am working on two Freeblade Knights, The Brothers Tetramazov, who ride in Malleus Sum and Incus Sum. Who are neither brothers, nor of House Tetramazov. Of course you could make the same stories – and people do – with Sergeants or Wolf Guard or what have you. It adds color to the game, and texture, and is fun. It’s just especially easy to do with really big models.
In short? Titans don’t belong in all games, or all stories. But then nothing does. But they do add the potential for a nice human touch to something with a major impact on the table, and add variety. And variety is the spice of life, and in my opinion, 40K.
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