+ inload: Creating an army of your own I +

+ Creating an army of your own – an invitation +

+ This inload is intended as the first in a mini-series that looks at my approach to world-building, with an eye to creating compelling narratives for your artwork, modelling and gaming. If all goes well, by the end you'll have your very own unique background for a force of orks, guard, eldar (or whatever else you fancy) – along with a couple of painted models; all achieved through a series of bitesize steps; and with examples and exercises to help guide you along the way. +

+ I've chosen Space Marines from Warhammer 40,000 as the main example, owing to their popularity, but the broader principles can be applied to anything – from Age of Sigmar forces to Titan Legions, to your own minor xenos for the Alien Wars. If you've ever been even slightly tempted to come up with a faction of your own, then I invite you to join me and follow along with the series. +

+ Before we begin, it goes without saying that all that follows is just, like, my opinion, man; so feel free to take as much on board as you like, ignore everything that you don't, and argue vociferously in the comments! The aim is simple: to make something that feels like it's yours. +

+ Noosphericinloadlinks +

I – Invitation and overview
II – Paint schemes and heraldic schemes 
III – Muted schemes
IV – High impact schemes [This inload]
V – Analogous schemes [Spooling]
VI – Enemies and allies [Spooling]


+ Why create your own force? +

Those scribators who've been inloading for a while will know I talk a good talk about being creative; but many of the armies I've built have been based on ones made up by other people. My Ultramarines and Iron Warriors, for example, may have my spin on them (being, as they were, exercises in fleshing out factions that have a reputation for being dull or generic) but they are, at heart, someone else's creation.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with making your own interpretation of an existing faction. Besides the ease of making decisions on colours, rules, army composition etc., it's also a good way of connecting with other hobbyists quickly. This is particularly apposite if you play with strangers in pick-up games or events, as it aids with gaming clarity. You can expect 40k players to knows what the Evil Sunz are; but not so much with the Howling Spiderz tribe. It's also fun to try and get things 'correct', or accurate – it's got a trainspottery vibe and appeal, and meeting like-minded players who recognise the depth you've gone into can be rewarding.

From the narrative hobbying perspective, there's also great pleasure in digging through old or obscure material to find an existing 'canonical' faction that you can bring to life. Having people recognise your Griefbringers Company or squat league is a rewarding and fun way to find like-minded people – and this is a social hobby at root, after all. This is a nice half-way house, and one I've followed quite a bit.

...and then we come to 'homebrew' factions. Even the name sounds a little down-at-heel; a little suspect. While the freedom such an approach offers is exciting, it can also be intimidating – and that can put a lot of people off; fearing sneers from other hobbyists doing 'proper' armies – and I think that's a terrible shame. In my experience, bespoke armies – however they're executed – invite far more interest and praise than jeers. Besides, It's a big universe, and it's only enriched by seeing unique colour schemes and histories.

At heart, the main reasons for creating your own force are threefold:

  • Telling your stories, with your men (or women, or post-human freaks, or bug-eyed monsters) is fun.
  • Challenging yourself to create is fantastically rewarding and liberating.
  • Creating your own force lets you explore a little (or big!) corner of a shared universe, and in so doing, gives depth to other hobbyists. 

I have created some factions of my own – notably my various Imperial Guard regiments, and my Eldar – but aside from a few one-offs, I've never really dug into making a Space Marine Chapter.

So I thought I would.

+ Founding a Chapter: the Gatebreakers +

+ Gatebreaker marine alongside two Imperial Armsmen +

At heart, I'm a contrary soul. For my Chapter, I want to make sure that they've got a distinct identity – no 'Blood Angels, but blue'; and not a caricature of an historical group. Jes Goodwin, being interviewed on Games Workshop's Voxcast podcast, made an excellent point that the best bits in 40k have their own distinct spin on existing concepts. 

It's not just a case of taking something and looking at it through a Warhammer lens; but combining complementary or even conflicting elements. Thus the Blood Angels, for example, are a distinctly 40k construct of pop-culture vampires, renaissance-era artwork, and Aliens-style future soldiers. It's a weird mix, but works because it offers lots of ways in. It can appeal equally to those who want a serious, pseudo-historical force and those who want an over-the-top fantasy vibe. The name has similar features: at once slightly ridiculous and compellingly iconic.

+ Theoretical: Picking a name +

Speaking of names... There are many ways to start, but I think coming up with a good catchy name is amongst the easiest. A good name also leads on nicely to helping decide on your force's culture and way of war later on. When picking a name, I recommend considering the following:

  • Ease of use  Shorter names are punchier, and easier for both you and other hobbyists to remember. I suggest you look first and foremost to names familiar to you, if only for ease of pronounciation: don't make things harder than they need to be for other people.
  • Exoticism  That first point needs to be balanced against originality. There 40k universe is a huge place, and there's space to bring a mirror to any real-world culture, modern or historical. 
  • Make it about you  Since this is a personal army, only you can decide what you want it to say about you, but exploring your own family history will likely throw up some cool ideas; as will the place you live. Look into local history and see if that brings something up.
  • Say it out loud  If you can't even bring yourself to say it, you'll struggle to convince anyone else to – I'd suggest it's a duff idea. Equally, if it's sounds awesome when you say it, you're onto a winner.
  • Avoid nominative determinism  That is to say, your army's name doesn't need to describe its behaviour, as that'll limit your choices later. 

Taking the irreverent spirit I mentioned earlier forward, I want to make sure that there are contradictions and surprises within the Chapter. First and foremost, in the name. My Chapter will be the Gatebreakers – a name I settled on because it fits the existing schema of being simple, martial and short. A typically bombastic and aggressive name for a Space Marine Chapter, it has associations of siegework – but that's the obvious path to take. All Space Marine Chapters – from White Scars to White Consuls – can do sieges; so naming themselves after their speciality seems a bit self-referential and limiting.

In short, the name you pick doesn't need to determine the force's behaviour. For my example, it's precisely because Gatebreakers suggests 'sieges' that I want to avoid any suggestion of siege specialism – it's reductive.

+ Practical

Now it's your turn to pick a name. Look beyond existing 40k tropes, at what inspired them in the first place. I've listed some starting points below:
  • Craftworld Eldar: Look at the Gaelic/Celtic festivals which inspired some of the Craftworld names – it's not a big jump between bealtaine, samhain and lughnasadh to Biel Tan, Saim-Hann and Lugganath. You might explore other Gaelic terms – perhaps relating to war or geographical regions. Flowery allusions are another route – try looking at Romantic-era poetry to select some choice verbiage.
  • Orks: The easy route is to go with 'Waaa-[insert warboss name here]', but if you want to try something else; orks tend to pick wonderfully blunt and earthy names based around physical objects – often animals, of weapons – and simple adjectives, such as 'fast' or 'yellow'. Given a quick 'orkification', we end up with 'Boar Runnaz', 'Skarlet Stikkas' and the like.
  • Imperial Guard: Guard naming is simple and fun – pick a planet, pick a number, and pick a nickname. The latter is perhaps the most creative part – and thus the part that offers your the most creativity. Look at existing real-world regimental nicknames, such as the 'Brickdusts'; 'Screaming Eagles'; or 'Immortals'.
What I'd like you to do is get your dataslate (or a piece of paper) and scribble down the first name that comes to mind – don't worry if it's crap, or derivative – keep going. Write down three of four more than are variations on the name; swapping out a word, or changing it slightly. If you want help trimming down, here are some ideas to avoid common pitfalls and clichés:
  • Avoid 'The' anything  It can work; but often comes across as needlessly portentous. It's also awkward when you come to situation when you need lists. A good name works without a determiner or prefix.
  • Less is sometimes more  Try to keep the name as short as possible – if you've used an adjective ('red', 'blood' etc.) try the name without.
  • Say the name out loud  40k can have a campy aspect, but if you feel silly just saying the name, it's probably a non-starter.
Next, write down four or five more that spring to mind: having a back-up choice is very useful! You don't need to share these with anyone; and we're not going to make a final choice yet. Nothing stifles creativity like feeling restricted, so we're going to keep our options open. In any case, it may be that the other options get put to use elsewhere – perhaps as names for units, relic wargear, or as honorifics. Put a star or something next to your current favourite before moving on to the next part – we'll use this as a placeholder.

Remember, the name doesn't determine the behaviour; so try to pick something that, first and foremost, sounds good to you.


+ Theoretical: Seeds of a culture +

With a name, we now do a small amount of world-building. We'll build on this later, so for the moment, a tight focus will help. Conflict is at the heart of these forces, so one way in is to look at how they fight – and how it differs from other groups of the same faction/species. You then follow the thread to see where it leads.

Having decided that the Gatebreakers are not a one-trick siege force, I need to decide what my Chapter is going to be. The main pitfall to avoid is making them too different – remember that your force must fit into the broader universe. Exceptionalism is a siren song, but it's the 'standard' stuff against which such talents sit which will ground your army. Think of the special stuff as your final highlights – they need the base coats to work properly.

  • Where does the army's faction stand in the game universe? 
    • Is it usually fast and fragile, slow and tough? 
    • Is it a horde or smaller?
  • Is my army a typical example of the faction, or does it differ?
    • If it differs, how?
  • Do these exceptions provide an advantage?
    • If so, why does the faction as a whole not use them?

Applying these to my Gatebreakers, I step back a bit and look at what Space Marines in general are – and that's effectively special forces. Astartes are brought in to solve problems that other Imperial institutions can't deal with. That's good enough for me; and I decide to keep their general approach Codex standard. In essence, then, the name 'Gatebreakers' can simply be an allusion to their role as solving problems – presumably with maximum violence – rather than a sign they do things hugely differently.

In short, whatever faction you're building, they're already distinctive and special – eldar are deadly fast; orks are tough and ramshackle. Our challenge is to find a niche that makes our faction different rather than better – and character does not rely on exceptionalism – in fact, it's often the weaknesses and ways of overcoming them that suggest interesting ideas.

With a couple of variables in place, we now pick somewhere for them to inhabit. We'll look at this later, so for the moment I suggest you simply pick from the following list:

  • Their own planet.
  • Roving from place to place.
  • Something more exotic.

I decided to have the Gatebreakers as a nomadic force, and place their holdings near the galactic rim. This is a favourite location of mine, as it's isolated, desolate and far from the centre of things – a perfect combination as far as I'm concerned, giving me a blank page to fill with strange new aliens, weird human cultures and all the implications of an unexplored frontier.

What effect does that choice of location have on the Gatebreakers? Well, their location on the rim suggested a fleet-based Chapter to me; constantly battling with resupply issues and scarcity owing to their isolation – and that lean, ruthless feel is something gives me a core to build upon.

Practical +

Over to you. Look for something that shares the core aspects of the existing background, and find a twist:
  • Craftworld Eldar: A core aspect of Craftworld Eldar culture is the sense of decline; of an inevitable terrible doom. How does your Craftworld deal with this? Defiance? Despair? Resignation? Duty? Last stands, declining empires and defiance are rich sources of inspiration.
  • Orks: The six clans offer a shortcut – but potentially a cul-de-sac that quickly becomes exaggerated to caricature. Evil Sunz do more than race; and not all Death Skulls are lootas. If you go for a mono-clan approach, be careful to give your warband some cultural quirk – perhaps a fondness for warpaint or some decorative element; perhaps a necessary reliance on some technology or cultural taboo to survive the planet they're on? If you go for a mixed-clan tribal approach; what clan is the warboss? Why?
  • Imperial Guard: As orks have the clans, so Guard have the real world to fall back on – but be careful not to make your Guard '[culture] in space'. As with the Blood Angels example above, try combining seemingly incongruous history with mythology or pop culture – Zhou dynasty China with werewolves, for example; or Classical Athenian naval troops with a world dominated by godzilla-like monsters.

Some tips for thinking out the framework of a culture:
  • What do they call themselves? This can give a good lens on a culture. Does the force refer to itself by its formal title, or by an affectionate nickname/honorific? Why?
  • Where do they come from? It's a cliché in sci-fi, but the place something comes from affects it. This can be a world (or craftworld); but could equally be a fleet. More abstractly, consider where your force comes from in time. Are they veterans, newly-formed, or something else?
  • What do they want? What are the short-term and long-term goals or aims of your force?
  • What do they fear? Weakness and frailty pose questions and create the potential for conflict – fantastic for creating character. It's also a good way to ensure you avoid that dreaded 'Mary Sue'
  • Are they a caricature of an existing culture? If so; think again. Chuck something new into the mix – something incongrous. If you've gone for a realistic feel, throw in something silly, and vice versa. (To reassure you here; consider Eldar Harlequins. On paper they're ridiculous: deadly space clown ninjas? Nevertheless, because the culture is sufficiently deep and compelling, it works.)

Jot down the answers to the questions above; then look again at your list of names. Does your initial favourite (marked with a star) still fit the bill? If not, do the others fit? For any you reject, can you use them elsewhere? Don't worry about things becoming incongruous at this stage – an Ethiopian-inspired culture having a Russian-sounding rank title, for example. These incongruities can add depth and interest. As always, you don't have to share these ideas with anyone – in fact, I'd encourage you not to. If you've come up with something awesome, the need to share it will push you forward to making a model...


+ Theoretical: Making models +

While I have already fleshed out the Gatebreaker's background a bit further – details in a future inload – I encourage you not to build the background too far too soon, as it inevitably puts restrictions on what you can eventually build. That in turn leads to lost opportunities. Leave yourself wanting to write more, as this creative urge will feed into and inform your modelling. Thus, with the broad strokes in place, I got started: 

+ Eo Duar, Gatebreaker +
 + Based on one of the new Plague Marine sculpts, I removed the obvious mutations and filled in the larger pockmarks. I did leave a few bullet holes and popped rivets, complementing them with some score marks of my own to suggest some relatively minor damage. This mix helps to visually blend the plastic areas with the greenstuff. +

+ I wanted a sense that the Gatebreakers' equipment is much-repaired (to go with the cultural markers we talked about earlier) rather than out-and-out scavenged or damaged to the point of uselessness. To suggest this, I chose a specific armour mark (in this case Mark 3) with a few replacement parts such as the mark V helm and mark VII arm. This hopefully suggests that there was a full suit once upon a time; rather than it being a completely scavenged patchwork (as you might expect with a renegade Chapter). +

+ Note the crude forearm system – presumably replacing a damaged in-suit system, or a jury-rigged repair. Visually, this serves to create some asymmetry and interest; moving the piece as a whole away from the Plague Marine origin. Sometimes it's about removing detail as much as adding it – and that applies to the background as much as the model. +

+ I left the tubules from the Plague Marine sculpt in place, but filled the holes and gaps to make them into cables. Again, the idea is to walk a line between 'old and much-repaired' and 'ancient to the point of decrepititude'. Taking opportunities offered by the base model can help generate challenges. The way you deal with them – whether paisntakingly removing and resculpting them; or building them in – will depend on your ambition as much as your ability. +

+ When you build, pause every so often, and check that you're not only showing the viewer what makes your force special; but what makes him fit into the existing world. Here, the mark III power pack and shoulder pads re-establish that this is an Imperial Marine. An equivalent for (say) a Guardsman would be to include the iconic lasgun – even a caveman miniature with a lasgun will 'read' as a Guardsman. +

+ I wavered on the boltgun. The figure already has lots of 'historical' elements that mean he wouldn't be out of place in the Horus Heresy setting; and the boltgun I used is often associated with that period too. However, in-universe it's just another boltgun – and for me it has associations with the real-world period of the 90s that I'm evoking with the Alien Wars project, so I left it on. +

+ In the context of the rest of the squad the associations will (hopefully) not be so marked – but even if they are, who cares? This process should, first and foremost, please you. +

Practical +

Last exercise for this inload, but easily the most rewarding: Making the first model for your force. The task is to build a single line trooper that exemplifies the culture you've created. I've listed starting points below for Craftworld eldar, orks and guard, but don't feel restricted to that – the advice applies equally to other xenos species.

The model you make will be informed by the answers you gave to the practical exercises above. Try to apply the same magpie approach to your modelling – look beyond the obvious sources to other ranges. Remember: it's just one model. Importantly, it's a line soldier. Not a leader, not a character – a basic warrior. The reason for this is simple: if you can exemplify the name and convey the culture on a relatively anonymous figure, you'll know you've come up with something good and distinctive.

The following are some starting points to help you exercise your creativity:
  • Craftworld Eldar: Even with GW, the Eldar are spoiled for kitbashing with the new Age of Sigmar elves. Historical figures often have a slighter stature than GW heroics – that can be put to good use here.
  • Orks: Orks have a wealth of third-party options open to them, and most ork players are dab hands at conversion, so my suggestion here is simple: don't underestimate the impact simple parts choice can have in suggesting culture. Challenge yourself with restriction: pick two ork sprues from different kits, and have at it. Cut, repose and have fun – just don't use anything beyond those two. It'll force you to adapt.
  • Imperial Guard: The opposite applies to the ork advice here. Too often, cool kitbash ideas are put on the backburner because the thought of repeating them a hundred times is demoralising. Focus on building one model, using all those parts you (deep down) really want to.

Look again at the example Gatebreaker marine I made. If I've done it right, the pose and pieces should give the impression of the embattled but ruthless culture I want to evoke – but that's for you to decide. If I've failed, then I'll do my best to fix it in the next inload! If you're struggling for a starting point, try one of these:
  • Pick a single part from a kit you've used before and know you like. Build a non-standard model around it.
  • Pick a single part from a kit you've always had your eye on, but never had a good reason to use.
  • Pick a kit that's lurked at the back of the cupboard for too long. If it's numbered, roll an appropriately-sided die to get the bit you have to incorporate.
  • Combine elements of two kits from different model lines.
The aim of this exercise is not to splurge money on getting exotic bits – indeed, another reason to do a basic trooper is that you may have some spares lying about that you can use to do this. If you do want to try something new, but are on a budget, Warlord Games currently have a sprue sale on [+noosphericinloadlink embedded+] – their Gates of Antares plastics can be picked up for a couple of quid, and are great sources of cool models.
Of couse, if you want to really go for it and make something truly outré with loads of random bits; then all the better – godspeed you!


+ Summary +

I hope this article's been interesting; and I really do encourage you to have a go at following the exercises. Follow through to build just one unique model, and you'll have a great sense of accomplishment. Better than that; you'll have unlocked your inherent creativity.

In the meantime, please do share your results (both models and cultures):


  1. Great article and very indepth! I prefer to make up my own stuff where I can, mainly as when I'm doing a non historical project, its my time to let the creative side come out.

    As far as naming goes, an old trick of mine is to take a walk around, look at street names, building names and other words on the built environment. It throws up all sorts of unusual things......

    1. That's a great little tip. It's a lovely way to tie your army to your own personal geography. I think Andy Chambers' gaming group did something similar – I vaguely remember Piscina IV being a pun on a street near where he lived.

  2. Great article, I'll be sharing it with a friend getting into the hobby. Trouble is, he is starting with Greyknights, which have a very established character. Current thinking is that the leader of the company could influence the culture.

    My own chapter started as a name years before I could afford the models. X-Squad may not the most 90's name you'll hear, but its sure to be a contender. I had a strong chapter symbol worked out and I was several years into the hobby before I realised how poorly I had named them. By this time I had a core of characters I was committed to and a narrative I cared about.

    Massaging the name into X-Squadron and tying the origin to fighter squadrons in the battle of Terra (Fists successors) helped a little. Walking back my Marty Stu psychic chapter master who communed with the Emperor also helped. Ignoring all the plans I had for X-Naughts/Marines- 4 armed dreadnoughts and marines with extra bionic arms helped a lot.

    I pulled the chapter back to knights of Dorn, saving the people, self sacrifice. They have permenant holdings between the solar system and the eye of terror and launch crusades into the lawless expanse to bring the light of the Emperor to lost humanity, faithless turncoats and populations under siege.

    They are good guy Black Templars, with their own flavour and values. By this stage I reckon X-Squadron is no more silly than space wolf, even if it is less iconic. I'd be happy to change the name if I could come up with something I liked- they have gone with honourifics like Defenders of Kolob or Angels of Aremis.

    You have reminder me that the 181st Victorian do not have an honourific or nickname. I'll get on that before my next game.

    Eo Duar looks good. Mk V looks brutal and the helm really sets the tone for this model. The suit coheres because the rivets and the bonding studs are similar. The cabling on the backpack and the assymetric extra cabling around the model does make the suit more jury rigged.

    He sets a high standard to follow.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and hope the articles prove useful – or at least interesting – to your friend. Grey Knights, Custodes and the like are very restrictive, but not completely without creativity. Personal heraldry goes a long way.

      I like the sound of your Chapter – tempted to bring it into the Alien Wars? I always think it's nice to honour your past, even if you now aren't so fond of it. A latinised version of 'X-Squadron' could well be an honorific given to a veteran squad or something :)

    2. "Chi" is the Latin spelling of the Greek letter "X" (as in the Chi-Rho, the X and P overlaid that was on late-Roman Empire shields and banners, representing the new Christian faith).

  3. Thanks for posting this, plenty to think about here.

    I really like the use of the plague marine body, the size seems pretty good, and you have done a great job at dialing back the damage.

    When I first got into 40k nearly 23 years ago, I equated Space Marines with storm troopers, and reversed the colors, white for black and black for white, leading to my Omega Marines. Since then a whole host of ideas have come and gone (to say nothing of game editions), but I have still not really revisited the original concept, or taken the leap into another chapter. Someday maybe.

    1. Thanks LGP. No better time than the present for the Omega Marines – why not join in and get one painted up as a gift to your 23-years-younger past self? :)

  4. Delightful, interesting read, and really great job on everything. Congrats.

    1. Cheers – and hope you enjoy the follow-up.

  5. I started well before this article, but the concepts here ended up being really useful.
    Anyway, here's the completed project: https://coinsandscrolls.blogspot.com/2020/12/40k-moribundan-1st-armoured-regiment.html


+ submission exloadform: inload [comments] herein +