+ inload: Imperial technology +

+ Ghost in the machine – Imperial weapons and machine spirits in Warhammer 40,000 +

'Master-crafted, artificer, relic, [others?] How do these grades of quality compare to each other?'
b1soul, The Bolter and Chainsword

+ This question, asking for clarification or explanation of what terms like 'relic', 'archeotech', 'master-crafted' and 'artificer' mean in-universe, popped up in a forum recently, and it got me thinking about 40k's machine spirits, too. The answer turned into what I found quite an interesting train of thought, so I worked it up into a rather discursive inload that explores my thoughts on Imperial technology in detail. +

+ The usual caveats apply; this is a fictional universe, after all, so there's no 'right answer', but it's fun to explore. I hope you enjoy the read, and please do feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below or on the Facebook group [+noosphericinloadlink embedded+]. +


+ Theoretical +

+ As a rule, Techpriests 'sign off' every piece of
manufactured technology with a blessing. +
Let me start by making the claim that the in-game use of terms doesn't necessarily match to what an in-universe observer would use; and even where it does, there's a huge grey area. In general terms, I'd suggest archeotech isn't so much a guide to quality as the other terms. As pointed out above, it – usually – simply labels something as being of pre-Imperial human origin; and usually irreplaceable because the means to create it are lost or forbidden (i.e. non-STC). The quality of it is hugely variable, as these tend to be poorly-understood one-offs, or from a cache that's carefully hoarded.

We then turn to Imperial materials. These are the things, from chainswords and boltguns to Rhinos and conversion beamers, that the Imperium can replicate and mass-manufacture. Usually (but not always) STC-derived, the Adeptus Mechanicus understand how to create these from scratch. Most are manufactured by the Adeptus Mechanicus themselves on Forgeworlds, but since the instructions on how to build them are understood, non-Mechanicus personnel can be trained to manufacture them (under license, and with the supervision of the Techpriests) in bulk, as with tanks and lasguns on hiveworlds like Armageddon and Necromunda; or boltguns and power armour in Space Marine Chapter forges.

A typical Astartes Chapter forge is staffed by slaves, servitors or helots who churn out things like boltgun shells and replacement parts for armour – though even this is implied to be heavily ritualised, more akin to mediaeval scribes copying manuscript pages than a modern munitions factory. The most skillful of these are the artificers – more practised and capable than the other slaves, and granted some freedom.

+ Consecrated and revered: forgewrought Astartes boltgun +
Overseeing the 'staff' are the Techpriests – the Techmarines. These are examples of the master-craftsmen, who can not only follow the holy writ of manufacture as accurately as the artificers, but can also see connections and innovate.

This 'quality level' also intermingles with the in-universe concept of machine-spirits. This concept has been muddied in more recent background, as some machine spirits are suggested to be akin to AI, but the original background was much more evasive. The implication was that machine spirits was something in between Roman lares and penates (i.e. a ghost or animating spirit of a place or thing) and the relationship a gearhead has with his motorbike.

+ The superstitious crew of this Leman Russ consecrate it with red handprints prior to each battle, as an imprecation to its machine spirit for protection. +


+ Practical +

To put this into context, consider the different sorts of boltgun we might encounter in-game and in-universe. 

Standard boltguns: While harder to manufacture than lasrifles, boltguns are nevertheless churned out on many forgeworlds and hiveworlds in huge numbers. These are destined for hive Enforcers, Imperial guard officers and the like. These are akin to a cheap digital watch; stamped out on an assembly line, assembled in parts by trained workers, and then blessed/passed by a supervising techpriest. When damaged, they are replaced, or jury-rigged back into service by an Enginseer in the field.

I'd suggest a typical Imperial Guardsman would go through the blessings by rote, rather than through religious fervour. He might blame himself for insufficient piety if it jams, but the relationship between man and boltgun is more akin to how we, as modern people, would see a weapon – as a tool.

+ Cheap 'n' nasty. (Boltgun's poor quality, too). +

On a quality scale above that are Astartes boltguns, built within the Chapter forges. Customised to a particular Astartes bearer, these boltguns are more akin to a tailor-made suit. Built with better materials and hand-assembled, they will be inspected and passed/blessed by a Techmarine or Master of the Forge. Culturally indoctrinated to believe that the boltgun is as much a spiritual gift as a tool, the Space Marine will tend and clean the weapon as a religious observance, and have his personal helots keep it in good working order. When damaged, he will take it to the forge to be carefully repaired by a specialised forge-helot, using new parts from the forge. Over time, the Space Marine and boltgun will become better attuned – reinforcing the idea that there is a 'machine spirit' that the Space Marine needs to placate and trust.

+ An Astartes boltgun is created for its bearer; both weapon and symbol of faith. +

+ Artificer and master-crafted boltguns +

For particularly important figures like officers, an Artificer, rather than a helot, may supply the replacement parts and do the repair. The parts will be a better quality (higher tolerances, better craftsmanship), and perhaps highly decorated. This again reinforces the idea of a machine spirit, as the better quality materials mean the officer's abilities with his weapon improve. As with the Ship of Theseus, this weapon, which is now what we'd call an artificer boltgun in-game, remains the officer's original boltgun and – crucially – retains the machine spirit of the weapon. Having been well-treated, the machine spirit rewards the officer with greater skill and accuracy (or so it appears to him). The boltgun may now look very different; gilded and chased with jewels; inscribed with prayers for the marine's fellows, or curses on their enemies; and perhaps finished with a purity seals.

Imagine next that the officer's weapon is, at last, lost or damaged beyond repair. Mournfully, the officer takes what remains to a techmarine, who lays the weapon's machine spirit to rest. Given his rank, the officer is gifted with a new boltgun. This one is built from scratch by a techmarine; perhaps the Master of the Forge himself. Built to exacting qualities and made with the finest materials – as befits the officer's standing – it is what we term master-crafted. To us, we'd see it as a fantastic machine – a brand new Ferrari to the other marines' Mercedes. To the Space Marine Officer, it is a new boltgun, but one that has an inherently more puissant machine-spirit – fiercer, stronger and more aggressive. It may be more accurate than the much-loved lost boltgun; less prone to jamming, and perhaps with a unique diagnostic device created by the techmarine. However, it may equally be unfamiliar; uncomfortable. The officer feels the machine spirit resists him; must be placated or tamed.

+ Master-crafted, artificer-enhanced or a relic – who can say?+
To our eyes, the the artificer-enhanced original boltgun and the replacement master-crafted boltgun would be similar in functional ability – the officer seems to be able to kill the same amount of the Imperium's enemies. There is no inherent functional difference, but more of an aesthetic one. It would be a matter of taste as to whether the classic or the replacement is 'better'; to continue the car metaphor, the artificer original might be seen as a classic E-type Jaguar or Rolls-Royce, while the master-crafted replacement might be seen as a top-of-the-range Ferrari or Tesla. Different strengths, different appeals.

+ Relic boltguns +

After centuries of heroic service, this master-crafted boltgun has itself been enhanced and decorated by generations of skilled artificers; blurring the in-game definitions of master-crafted and artificer. The machine spirit has been tested and proved triumphant; its character has settled. Perhaps it has mellowed from its fiery beginnings in the forge, becoming so reliable it seems to never jam, while keeping a higher rate of fire than any other in the armoury. Perhaps the spirit has remained cantankerous; granting victory only to those who can tame it. A reputation has sprung up around the boltgun; a reputation that is well-known not only to the officer, but to his men. Perhaps it is granted its own familiar or honorific name.

One day, however, the officer falls. The weapon is borne from the battlefield alongside him, its retrieval granted all the respect of the warrior himself. Totemic to the Company, the boltgun is handed down through further generations. Depending on the Chapter's view of its machine spirit, perhaps it is gifted to another officer for a time. Perhaps it is only brought out to inspire the men at critical junctures, or Company rituals. Perhaps it is returned to the Forge, where it is loaned out to other officers, the weapon's reputation inspiring them. This is a relic boltgun.

+ Honour the battle gear of the dead. +
+ Only the Emperor is higher in our devotion. +


+ Innovation and technology in the Imperium +

Before we go further, it's worth noting that – as with all material in 40k – everything you have been told is a lie. It's good nerdy fun to chat about this stuff and explore those parts of the universe that haven't had as much attention as others, but any of my personal interpretations are naturally open to discussion – please do leave your thoughts below. With that proviso in mind, let's explore the relationship of research, technology and machine spirits in the 41st Millennium.

+ STCs and humanity +

Firstly the vast, vast majority of all technology in the Imperium is STC-derived. The Standard Template Constructs were devices that pre-Imperial humans took with them on humanity's first steps into the stars. Able to adapt to local conditions and materials, the STC devices created efficient, rugged designs and products to enable settlers to survive and thrive.

With the machines so easy to maintain and able to innovate, humanity gradually lost first the need – and then the ability – to innovate. After a golden age of expansion, the Dark Age of Technology ended with a galaxy-wide war between humanity and the intelligent robots they created; a war humanity narrowly survived.

+ Abominable Intelligence and the tech-priests +

+ Techpriest of Mars, carrying both holy STC-tech
and relic non-STC. +
Distrustful and guarded, it's implied the survivors rejected technology, using it only where necessary, and never again creating artificial intelligence – referred to in modern 40k as 'abominable intelligence'. The tech priesthood of Mars largely stems from these events; collecting all knowledge and keeping it hoarded and away from those who might use it – for once the genie is out of the bottle, killer robots aren't far away. The Adeptus Mechanicus is generally seen as builders and scientists; practical engineers, but at root it's a questing religion that values knowledge. To the Cult, technology is a reflection of knowledge, rather than an end in itself.

Humanity relies on technology, however, so a balance has to be struck. STC-derived tech, is generally regarded as 'safe'; and (in-universe) it's for this reason that so many Imperial structures, vehicles and the like are visually identifiable as Imperial: it's simple, rugged, reliable and time-proven. In theory, the Adeptus Mechanicus monitor and control all technology. In practise, this is impossible, and there are thus non-STC technologies.

+ Innovations, recombinations and new technology +

Beyond the types of tech we've looked at above, there's new stuff occasionally created by the Adeptus Mechanicus. These start out as one-off devices to test out a magos' pet theory or similar. By virtue of being made by a magos, this is 'master-crafted' material; but in-universe there's an important distinction between craftsmanship  and innovation. The former is beyond reproach; the better the craftsmanship, the closer a device is to the perfection of the Machine God, from whom all machine spirits emanate. The latter potentially skirts blasphemy or heresy; but is not necessarily forbidden to the highest echelons of the techpriesthood – or at least those who are powerful enough to defend themselves from rivals.

It's easy to think of techpriests like modern scientists or engineers, but in terms of characterisation, they share as much in common with particularly conservative priests, dilettante 18th natural philosophers and classic fantasy wizards as those professions. While much of the culture leans away from creation as blasphemous (after all, it's akin to playing god), certain radicals – such as Belisarius Cawl – do manage to create genuinely new things.

This is far from normal; and unless a Techpriest has very powerful sponsors (like a Primarch, for example), he or she would likely be considered a heretek and killed. Instead, 'new' technology within the Imperium comes not from innovation, but from combining existing elements in different ways: STC-derived tech is a little like very complex Lego, if you like.

Hugely insular and hidebound – and for arguably very good reasons (no-one in universe wants killer AI back) – this new material is not usually researched and developed in the way a modern reader might imagine; but rather by piecing together existing STC designs (the holy writ of the Machine God) in new combinations. The creation of such devices is as likely to be led by a flight of fancy or reinterpretation of a partial text as anything else.
+ Visualising Standard Template Constructs  +
I like to imagine crumbling old print-outs found, like some latter-day Dead Sea Scrolls, in an ancient cavern, and pored over by generations of arguing techpriests; some producing heat-guns from what they can piece together, others a new sort of ship's engine – or perhaps a more reliable toaster. Whether any of these are the original intention is by-the-by: when the only tool you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. The old background to the Rhino vehicle is an excellent example. Lacking a complete Armoured Personnel Carrier STC (because relatively few colonists needed such vehicles, and of those that did, no plans survived Old Night), humanity is instead served by a repurposed tractor, with advanced armour and high-power weapons crudely mated to the hull.

+ Heresy-era non-standard wrist-cannon +
On the battlefields of the 41st Millennium, the sort of innovative tech described above is very rare – the sort of thing we might see as in-game Relics; or wielded by a Magos Dominus of the Adeptus Mechanicus. This is because research and development has slowed to a near-halt in this period; things are sliding back into a new dark age.

This is nicely contrasted with the 31st Millennium – i.e. the Great Crusade period – where tech is still in development. The ur-example here is Space Marine Armour; and it's worth contrasting the improvement and refinement of power armour against the alternate patterns of boltguns.

The former is an example of how the rugged STC designs from across the galaxy can be combined to create new, better hybrid versions. The latter are simply different STC machines' answers to the same question, varying owing to local materials or conditions.

The point is that apparently new creations are much more likely to be reinterpretations or different combinations of existing Imperial technology than genuine innovation. Such creations may one-day be standardised – the various Space Marine flyers are examples of in-universe vehicles that have been reconstructed from ill-understood or partial STCs; and the Razorback is an example of a techmarine-led battlefield alteration, that was later sanctioned by the Adeptus Mechanicus – an act equivalent to historical religious doctrinal differences in the real world.


+ Regional tech +

+ Nur Na Phom warrior; carrying non-standard local firearm. +
A final note here, on something that doesn't get discussed much; and that's regional tech. It's glossed over, or only touched on in the background, but if you want to do any 'deep thought' on how the galaxy really works, you quickly come to the conclusion that the Adeptus Mechanicus must either operate a sort of technological realpolitik as regards most materiel in the Imperium, or be constantly at war with tech-heretics – or both, of course!

Gamewise, we're familiar with weapons and equipment looking a certain way, or having easily-distinguished features, like the distinctive flash suppressors of lasguns. To some extent, this makes sense; particularly when we consider that STC-derived tech is explicitly said to look fairly similar the galaxy over. Nevertheless, the scale of the galaxy means that there must be huge variation, even within STC designs.

I don't regard this as a problem, however. The sort of double-think necessary to proscribe certain technologies to certain people while allowing them to others enriches the setting, rather than detracts from it.

Just as the representation of deities varies through culture and time, so I suspect at a macro-level the Mechanicus must police only egregious uses of technology – xenotech, for example, or corrupted technology; and leave the enforcement of the letter of tech-doctrine to the purview of the local techpriests.

The result would be a massively diverse, rich aesthetic; an inhabitant of the 41st Millennium would be surrounded by a chaotic and baroque mix of technologies as far removed from the models as we are from that time.


+ Modelling Imperial tech +

+ Forget the promises of technology and science, for so
much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned.
From an out-of-universe point of view, identifiability is important for gaming. We need weapon types to look distinct from each other for clarity. However, this distorts the player's expectations of what the universe would look like; giving rise to rivet-counting suggestions that such-and-such weapon or armour can only look a certain way.

For pure modelling, creativity is the order of the day. I'd encourage you to use parts from all over to pursue your vision, even if they differ from the 'standard model' for a particular piece of tech. The Inq28 groups, epitomised by John Blanche's wonderful artwork and Blanchitsu-style of modelling, really capture this spirit well. I'd suggest that it's an equally valid reflection of the universe as the studio's.

I don't want to suggest that I dislike the cleaner look, either. Jes Goodwin's sculptural clean lines and cunningly-developed concept sketches create a sense of verisimilitude that is sometimes lacking in the more expressive Inq28 style.

For myself, I find myself stepping between two camps. I can see the appeal of accurately recreating the details of a particular mark of Space Marine armour – after all, unless we evoke the particular artwork, we can't really be said to have modelled it accurately; and accuracy will aid in recognition, leading to better, friendlier gaming, if that's a consideration. However, equally strongly, I think that the artist's vision should want to go beyond any specific fixed idea, and really show off a personal vision.

However, note I don't say that the more esoteric Inq28/Blanchitsu approach is more valid than the more coherent studio/Goodwin approach. Clean, uniform troops are fully within the scope of the setting; and it's the very juxtaposition of clean figures with spikier outré warriors is part of what gives 40k its punky aesthetic.

The whole point I'm making is that even the Imperial part of the 41st Millennium is huge – longer than recorded history, and spread across a million worlds. Viewed in this way, the idea that X technology only looks a certain way is clearly absurd; however restrictive and punitive the Adeptus Mechanicus are, there's always going to be a hungry family willing to break the rules to eat. The only real restrictions are therefore what you consider to strike the right balance between your own interpretation and that of the broader hobby – and even that only matters if you want to share it publicly.

In short, accuracy to the figures or a single style of art is not the only option. Hitching your cart to any artist or style is an inherently reductive approach – the best you can achieve is a facsimile. Quite apart from anything else, I argue it doesn't properly capture the underlying essence of Imperial technology, which is diverse, varied, and often bespoke. To the inhabitants of the 41st Millennium, technology is to be feared and honoured with equal, religion-tinged fervour; and never, ever trusted.

In sticking rigidly to any existing 'visual canon' – whether that given by the miniatures, or by a particular artist – we naturally restrict ourselves. I'd argue that far from properly representing the fictional universe, such rigidity slightly misses a strong part of the appeal of the grim darkness of the far future – and worse, discourages you from saying what you want to say.

In the grim darkness of the far – and fictional – future, there's no truth, and there aren't any gatekeepers to aesthetics. Every model you make, alone and when set alongside other miniatures, in different styles, already fits in perfectly.


+ inload: The Vrag-Rana +

+ The Devil-Dogs of Slav Mundi: The Vrag-Rana +

Survivalists; killers. Sadists. They captured three of the Tenstar Greycores – we heard 'em over the vox while we were holed-up. The Vrags had somehow locked-out the transmit beads.  
Sergeant Warr couldn't take it. Went to put a bullet into the 'caster. When he moved, Vragger sharpshooter spread his head-meat over the rear wall. 
The rest of us stayed put. Sat for the rest of the night, huddled from the dark, listening to the rain and the wind, trying not to hear those poor grey bastards scream out their throats.
Testament of Corpsman Gharrett Atkyn, Elirian 145th 

+ Abstract +

+ The Vrag-Rana were an elite force fielded throughout the Red Hand Dominate by the Chaos forces of the Red Hand Region. Well-trained, equipped, motivated and organised to a level comparable to the Imperial Guard, the force had its roots on the border planet of Slav Mundi, a mist-shrouded world of moors, scrubby badlands and low-built cities of sulking black iron. After the world was claimed by the Crusade, the scattered Vrag-Rana Remnants coalesced around the darkly charismatic Xiah Hesh, to whom they became fanatically loyal. +

+ Presence +

+ The Vrag-Rana were amongst the earliest forces encountered during the Crusade; recorded as active across the Buir’s Reach Corridor in M42.040. They were noted as creating 'stiff opposition' to the Second Army Group. Nevertheless, a staging base for the Crusade was established on Slav-Mundi, which remained in Imperial hands for the remainder of the Crusade. +

+ However, far from destroying their will, the humiliating loss of Slav-Mundi meant that the majority of the remaining Vrag-Rana forces, estimated to be in the region of quarter of a million men, were placeless and bitterly resentful of the Crusade. The loss of their homeworld drove them deep into the waiting arms of Hesh and his sub-ordinates, who deployed these disciplined soldiers to stiffen resistance across the Region. +

+ They were immortalised in Imperial propaganda as by the sobriquet 'vrags' or 'vraggers', and images of their sinister weapons and uniforms were common shorthand for 'the enemy' amongst the Imperial Guard. +

+ Dynamic, aggressive and well-led, they were to become one a dark mirror to the Imperial Guard forces during the Augustine Crusade, present to some extent at all stages of the Crusade and in all theatres; occasionally massing in dedicated kill-brigades, but mostly serving as a hard-core around which local forces rallied. +

+ Origins +

+ Slav Mundi, Vrag-Rana world of origin +
+ Historically speaking, Slavmundan warriors were much in demand as fierce mercenaries throughout – and occasionally beyond – the region. +

+ Sitting outside the Red Hand Region proper, Slav Mundi had suffered terribly under the occupation of a previous Imperial expedition, led by the ill-fated Lord General Mazhan in late M41, which used the feudal planet as a staging post in its assault on the Red Hand Region. +

+ After the withdrawal of the Imperial invaders, a century prior to the Augustine Crusade, the peoples of Slav Mundi entered into a tense non-aggression pact with each other, removing much of the internecine conflict that had blighted Slavmundan history. +

+ The culture became inward-looking and increasingly martial, with nearly forty per cent of its population under arms – an impossibly high proportion that precluded the world being self-sufficient; and necessitated the populace becoming mercenaries, sell-swords and pirates across the Region. The myth of the reaving Vrag Rana – a Slavmundan term meaning 'wound-wreck' as a reference to their origins under the Imperial bootheel – spread and grew across the whole Red Hand region in the century between Mazhan's occupation and the Augustine Invasion. +

+ A Dance in Fleshmarket Square – Second Invasion of Slav-Mundi +

+ By the time the Augustine Crusade approached in M42, Imperial command was expecting to find a divided Feudal-class world, ready to be dominated and exploited as Mazhan had done years before, in what the locals termed the 'first invasion'. Instead, the Imperials came upon a united planet peopled by hardened and professional soldier-mercenaries, armed to the teeth with materiel abandoned years earlier by Mazhan's forces, and reinforced by the booty, plunder and allies of a century of successful freebooting. +

+ Resourceful Vrag-Rana partisans continued to operate 
on Slav-Mundi, late into the crusade +
Fortunately for the Crusade, the modus operandi of the Vrag Rana meant that the vast majority of the Vrag-Rana – now estimated to have numbered at between a quarter and half a million fighting men – were employed elsewhere across the Red Hand Region when Slav Mundi was invaded. Under the defiant leadership of a warlord named O Colmen Corm, the remaining Vrag-Rana battalions forced the Imperial Second Army Group into a grinding siege. +

+ While the majority of the world was subjugated in relatively short order, organised resistance in the outlying cities on Slav Mundi were to last for more than two years (indeed, partisans are now suspected to have been present up to the infamous Night of Ten Thousand Daggers), consuming a disproportionately large amount of the Augustine forces. This led to the planet's sardonic nickname of 'fleshmarket square' amongst the Imperial Guard. +

+ The planet's resistance to Imperial rule was strengthened by the firm grip of O Colmen Corm, a ruthless but extremely capable military supremacist who had gradually consolidated the bulk of Vrag-Rana forces into a dedicated and well-organised elite over the course of two decades. Cold but capable, Corm built a loyal powerbase through rotating the local warbands out as mercenaries, building their skills across a dozen worlds in the Red Hand Region. Instead of fighting each other, Corm had found a way to centralise the Vrag-Rana, and create a genuinely effective and adaptable fighting elite that owed its loyalty to him. +

+ Vrag Rana frontline forces during the Invasion of Slav-Mundi. Note the presence of Kroot mercanery auxiliary. +

+ It was later to become apparent that Corm himself had fallen under the insidious sway of Xiah Hesh years earlier, while serving as a mercenary himself – and as it became clear Slav Mundi could not stand, Corm ordered his forces to fall back to the Core Worlds of his master's realm; in a last spiteful act against the hated invaders. Over the course of months, more and more Vrag-Rana slipped through the cordons to escape deeper into the Red Hand Region; there to bring their military expertise to Hesh's direct control. As his last bastions came under sustained assault, Corm made it clear that he saw it as the Vrag-Rana exiles' destiny to one day reclaim their world. +

+ Death of Corm +

+ O Colmen Corm was the first of Xiah Hesh's field commanders to be killed. He became a martyr to the Red Hand as Slav Mundi was conquered, his death giving Warmaster Augustine a significant propaganda coup. 'Giving a call to Corm' became a shorthand taunt used by the Imperial forces to intimidate their enemies – though such bravado became ill-advised later in the later stages of the Crusade, as the Vrag-Rana remnant battalions dotted across the Red Hand Region were known to be particularly ruthless in their treatment of captured Imperial soldiery suspected to have used the phrase. +

Corm's death resulted in the collapse of serious resistance on Slav-Mundi, and the homeworld was considered Compliant some two years after invasion. The loss of their world might well have left the Vrag-Rana as scattered groups to be defeated in detail, but for the canny action of Xiah Hesh. + 

+ The orphaned Vrag Rana battalions across the Region were deiberately targetted by Xiah Hesh's agents, and these rudderless groups drawn into his orbit. Given fresh leadership and centralised support, the Vrag Rana were welded into the deadly force the Augustine Crusade met during the Mid-Crusade period. Their discipline, fanatical devotion to Hesh and reliable wargear made them a fearsome foe, well able to meet the Imperial Guard on an equal footing. +

+ Equipment, tactics and organisation +

+ Built on hard-won experience built through lives as soldiers of fortune, Vrag-Rana forces were universally flexible, aggressive and disciplined. They excelled at ship-board and urban fighting, where their practised heavy infantry tactics and ferocious nature complemented one another. +

+ Armoured units were less commonplace, but far from rare. Their own Armour pool was supported and swollen by supplies from within the sector, and supplmented both by Hesh himself and by captured Imperial armour. Even late in the Crusade, the Vrag-Rana could bring to the field entire companies of Armoured and Artillery units; though these became increasingly rag-tag and improvised after the Mid-Crusade period. +

+ Ghekava encountered on Buir's World. +
+ O Colmen Corm's treatise on warfare used the dhasak as the basic unit, consisting of between thirty and fifty men and women under a nominated ghekava; roughly equivalent to an Imperial platoon under a junior officer. He hired out the Vrag-Rana based on anywhere between one and five thousand 'dhasaka'. Comparisons to Imperial organisation break down above this level, owing to the way a command cadre was formed among the Vrag-Rana. 

+ While increasingly large Imperial forces retain their officers and are supplemented by increasingly highly-ranked superiors – so three Imperial platoons will have their lieutenants joined by a Captain or Major – the Vrag-Rana tsermad was a flat rank, translating roughly as 'senior' or specialist. Such specialists were attached to the dhasak, and provided advice, expertise to the group as a whole. Thus a company-sized force might be accompanied by anywhere between ten and a hundred tsermada, depending on their role within their employer's military. +

+ This approach to warfare broke down somewhat after Corm's death, with the Vrag-Rana forced to provide their own leadership in a way that they had not previously. This was to prove both a strength and a weakness throughout their campaign. Supremely self-reliant and resourceful, the Vrag-Rana excelled at small unit tactics – but when confronted with a planetary-warzone or campaign theatre to operate, they struggled to match Imperial expertise and resources; and could be defeated in detail. +

+ Vrag-Rana line troops operating within the Ynwirm system. +
+ In the early stages of the Crusade, Tsermada ranged hugely, from communication and artillery specialists, to miners and siege-workers, and drivers and military liaisons. Vrag-Rana occasionally fought alongside xenos or abhuman forces, and showed few qualms about being asked to do so; fielding tsermada language or culture specialists to ensure the xenos complemented or covered a weakness of the Vrag-Rana themselves. +

+ Kolossan +
+ As the Crusade ground on, changes wrought by Hesh began to see the Kolossan 'Gaghut' elites broaden their purview from their original honorific bodyguard role to becoming more akin to an Imperial officer corps – though the transition was both hesitant and incomplete by the end of the Crusade. +

+ Vrag-Rana forces were generally well-equipped. Each soldier was expected to provide and upkeep his own kit and weaponry, and used the handsome pay to supplment and adapt it as best he or she saw fit – within the scope of their role within the dhasaka, of course. As a general rule, most favoured equipment similar to that of the Imperial guard: las-rifles and flak-equivalent armour. +

+ The underlying reason for this is two-fold: firstly, such equipment was easy to service and maintain. Secondly, it was plentiful on Slav Mundi owing to General Mazhan's earlier occupation. Huge quantities of materiel had been abandoned on the world a century earlier – and it was natural for the feudal-level inhabitants to make good use of it. +

+ Indeed, modern Imperial tacticians suspect that the abandonment of such stores on Slav Mundi directly influenced the cultural development of the populace – presented with arms and armour, it became self-reinforcing for the people of the world to become mercenaries: the Imperium sowed the seeds of what was to become a thorn in its side for the duration of the Crusade. +

+ The Hand of Hesh +

+ Hand of Hesh, applied to pauldron +
+ A note should be made of the 'Hand of Hesh', a symbol that became commonplace amongst the forces the Red Hand Dominate raised against the Crusade, and universal amongst Vrag-Rana forces loyal to Hesh. +

+  The handprint with truncated third finger was a symbol that waved from banners, appeared on individuals' warpaint or armour (often hurriedly applied over the Imperial Aquila borne on salvaged or stolen equipment), and even appeared on non-military trinkets and cultural missives, where it was used as a good luck totem and a symbol of loyalty to the Red Hand region. +

+ Unknown before the fall of Slav-Mundi, the symbol sprang up and spread quickly as a unifying symbol against the Imperial invasion – a visual affirmation of power and resistance, which led to its alternative name of the 'Halt'. +

+ inload: Short story – runes +

+ A bit out of the blue; a bit of colour text today. I'm taking part in the #hohohobbyvices thing, and this little short will be accompanying the gift. It's 40k, sure; but I think a bit of the Christmas spirit can fit in even in the grim darkness of the far future every so often. +

+ Hope you enjoy it; and we'll return to our regular doses of rationed corpsestarch, warfare and suffering with the next inload! +


In her haste, a scattering of stones followed her down the slope as she reached the deep bottom of the cave. 'Forgive me, my lady. I... I have arrived too late, I fear.' Her finely-sculpted cheeks were tinged subtly coral-pink with exertion.

The hooded figure she addressed remained still, its hunched back rising and falling imperceptibly. Imperceptibly, that is, except to the acute senses of the Eldar. To Nairieath, whose own breath was coming back to her, the figure's poise was unsettling.

The hunched figure was old. Old in a way strange even for the aeldari. Age cascaded from the ragged cloak in a way Nairieath was unable to articulate. Composing herself, Nairieath bowed her head. She saw her feet, planted in the fine sand that covered the floor of the cave. More sand was trickling down; following, with a fine hiss, the small stones she had disturbed in her headlong rush. At last, even that sound faded.

For a long while, Nairieath waited in the silence, perfectly still. At length, the figure moved. Its face remained shrouded in the gloom, but an arm – pale as the belly of a fish, and stick-thin – emerged. It was imbued with the same sense of timelessness as Nairieath had sensed from the cloak. With a twist in her gut, she realised the arm ended in a mutilated hand; the five fingers reduced to stumps.

The stump rested in the dust on the floor for a moment; as though even such a movement were exhausting; then began to trace a pattern. Nairieath squinted, nervous but impatient. At length, the arm withdrew. Nairieath squinted, unable to discern the pattern clearly. Haltingly, nervously, she took a half-step forward.


'It was the rune of despair,' she announced, bursting into the chamber. 'With a brief bow, I departed the Crone; and returned here at once. Despair – and loss. I am in sorrow to bear such ill news, my lords and ladies.' Her heart ached. The others turned to her, their expressions bleak. The horolith pulsed in sympathy, the display picking up the aeldari commanders' consternation.

The Autarch turned back to issue his orders, his face grave and flinty. His subordinates stood ready – but he paused. 'Mhorrissaigh, my seer,' he said, his voice betraying nothing. 'You wish to speak?'

The seer nodded, and turned to Nairieath. His eyes, unlike the others, twinkled.

'My messenger; can you be certain?' Nairieath flushed. She might be young, but she was not stupid. She held her temper in check.

'I know my letters; my lord.' she replied, haughtily.

Withdrawing a rune from the pouch at his belt and laying it on the table, Mhorrissaigh spoke. 'And yet, I ask again. Can you be sure?' The seer smiled. The rune hovered a short distance over the horolith's smooth flat surface. With a psychic nudge, the seer impelled it towards Nairieath. She stared at it, slowly advancing along the long table towards her. The shape was identical in all ways to that drawn in the sand; and the stately pace seemed to hammer home the grave warning the prophet had passed on. Its passage down the long, narrow table seemed to take an eternity.

As it came to rest in front of her, an urge to pick it up and fling it back at the seer arose; but a lifetime of discipline strangled the impulse. Staring down at the rune, she wrestled inwardly with her hatred for the supercilious, mocking seer. She didn't know what to say, and kept her eyes fixed on the hateful rune. It hovered in front of her, identical in all ways to that inscribed in the sand in the cave. At length, unbidden tears pricking at her eyes, she looked up.

She was startled to see the others smiling, eyes bright.

It was then, as she looked back down at the rune, that she realised her error. It had turned through one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, and was now travelling back up the table to the seer in the same stately manner at which it had proceeded.

It was the rune of despair. But in turning around...

As it reached him, Mhorrissaigh picked it up. He held her gaze for a moment, then brandished the rune to her.

Not the rune of despair. Not that way round. Not despair at all, but hope.