I’ve always been a big fan of the undead. Back in the old days when bases were square I dreamed of a vast host of walking corpses with which to dominate the living. Then I discovered how many skeletons I’d have to paint and rather went off the idea, plus the models for the zombies were ancient and terrible – and believe it or not they still are. Games Workshop; by far the most successful miniatures company in the world and they still can’t find the time to replace a staple of the fantasy genre like the zombie.
It wasn’t so much the number of bodies I needed to paint that put me off (I went for Skaven in the end after all) but the real world cost of buying them all, especially when compared to the rats which were at that time rumoured to be in the starter set for a forthcoming 8th edition. In the end though I did acquire a small collection of revenants and last year I even got around to painting them. I should probably have put them on round bases whilst I was at it but even then AoS was hard to take seriously, it’s background fiction a slapdash, cobbled together nonsense of copyrightable names and unfinished ideas.
My zombie apocalypse begins – without the zombies.
Now, however, Games Workshop have recognised the value in expending some time and energy fleshing out the setting and the rest of us are reaping the rewards. It’s still a bit pompous and overly convoluted, it’s still a mishmash of ideas carried over from previous iterations and it still doesn’t always know when to be serious and when to be silly but that’s Warhammer for you. Things weren’t any different before the Age of Sigmar came along.
Anyway, the undead are back in town and my interest has been rekindled. The ghosts that we met in the Soul Wars starter set have been bolstered into a fully fledged fraction. Some of the new releases are the same or similar to the models that appeared in Soul Wars so I won’t go over them again here, if you want to know what I thought of them you know where to look. In the meantime let’s turn our attention instead to the rest of the new ghosts, starting with the big boss, Lady Olynder, the Mortarch of Grief.
Looking around online I find myself wondering if I am the only person on the planet who’s not a huge fan of Olynder. Then again I’m not terribly enamoured with Nagash either, his model is just a little bit too over the top and special effect heavy for my taste. Released at the beginning of the End Times he falls down for me between his two incarnations – a little too big and showy to be the great necromancer of the old world, a little too small and unspectacular to be an actual god. Gods in my opinion should be too big and awe inspiring for the tabletop. Imagine a miniature of Khorne or Nurgle for example. Alarielle gets away with it, firstly by being awesome and secondly because there’s an exception to every rule.
As for Olynder, she’s nice enough but I’m not sure I share the rabid enthusiasm for her that others have displayed. The clever trick the designers have pulled here is that she is essentially a large, detail-light space, framed by detail-heavy elements; a blank canvas but one you would never really be able to play with without spoiling the illusion. I’ve got no doubt that there will be Golden Daemon entrants using her as an opportunity to create eye-aching works of technical perfection but to my taste I don’t think I’d find her either interesting or relaxing to paint. She’s not my least favourite Mortarch, that dubious honour falls to Arkhan the Black who shares his employer’s taste in ludicrous hats, but she’s a long way from the downright gorgeous Neferata.
That said there are some truly wonderful elements and the whole design is undoubtedly extremely clever. Look at the way she holds up the trailing hem of her dress for example, a very human gesture which grounds her as a person rather than just an ambulatory sheet. She doesn’t have to worry about tripping over, she doesn’t even have any feet, but we expect a bride to need to worry about her train and so the gesture humanises her and helps to turn a faceless absence into a relatable person.
By dressing Olynder as a Miss Havisham–style bride the designers have also defined her by the absences around her. Instead of the groom and wedding ceremony she has only two little ghosts for company. She is forced into a role, and weakened by it. Neferata is a queen, Olynder will at best only ever be the wife of a king. That king certainly is not Kurdoss Valentian however, hunched on the looming throne he appears subservient to it, as though his incorporeal arse is only keeping it warm for someone stronger and he expects to get kicked off at any moment.
Olynder is also without doubt the most original of the four Mortarchs, the others harking back to the same motif; an undead general mounted upon a flying steed. Thus of the three named heroes available to the Nighthaunt, Reikenor the Grimhailer is the most immediately familiar.
His steed is also surprisingly traditional for AoS where no-one seems to ride horses anymore when you can scoot about on a half-cat, half-dragon or a flying shark instead. With his winged horse, Kyallaron, which could easily pass for a Hellsteed he wouldn’t have looked out of the place in a Vampire Counts army and thus he acts as something of a sop to fans of a more traditional aesthetic.
Like the other Nighthaunt there’s nothing terribly fancy about Reikenor himself, a carved mask and a few candles being his only concessions to grandeur. Kyallaron however makes up for it, from his battered armour to the candelabra’s worth of candles stuck to his nose this horse is one of the most extravagantly dressed heroes in the Nighthaunt army. Or maybe he’s just angling for a job with House Cawdor.
The angel statue deserves a special mention. A wonderfully evocative addition it almost feels wasted tucked away under Reikenor’s hooves and would make for a cracking terrain piece for either AoS or 40k were one willing to construct something else for the Grimhailer to gallop over the top of.
Of the three new leaders however by far my favourite is Kurdoss Valentian, the Craven King. As a leader he’s a perfect exemplar of the army as a whole. He looks physically weak, hunched on the edge of his crumbling throne, his glory faded, the stone work of his dais breaking to dust beneath him. Unlike the rest of the range, which is defined by being ethereal to varying degrees, there is a distinct solidity to him; his throne may be floating but it is still a big lump of rock and the mace he clutches looks more than heavy enough to crush heads and break bodies. Kurdoss himself however is a wretched and frail creature, lacking the solid presence of the throne and weighed down both actually and figuratively by the weight of his crown.
Having three named characters, each of which could easily be the faction leader, serves to emphasise the feeling of weakness at the heart of the Nighthaunt. Can you imagine Neferata, Arkhan or Mannfred suffering competitors to their thrones? Yet whilst those three were powerful rulers in the Old World, with an independence and authority that defined their characters, these newcomers are nothing more than puppets for Nagash. No wonder Kurdoss Valentian sits so awkwardly on his throne.
Ghosts riding down their victims on spectral horses makes for a suitably terrifying image but for a long time the only way to represent this was with the less than spooky hexwraiths. Oddly, despite sharing a kit with the wonderful black knights, the hexwraiths are, at least to my eye, rather naff. Their upright poses and chunky garments make them quite the opposite to the spectral Nighthaunt we’ve seen released this month. Rather than being ghostly they’re just skeletons with lumps of plastic flame stuck to them at random. Luckily those wanting to paint spooky horsemen of actual quality are at last being rewarded. As well as the Knight of Shrouds and Reikenor we have the Dreadblade Harrows which sounds like the title of a Harry Potter book in which the plucky boy wizard joins a long and illustrious list of people who have aggravated Nagash and got away with it.
We already received one spirit torment in the Soul Wars box now we have another, this time wearing a gibbet but still looking every inch the jailer. He carries a huge padlock clearly intended to serve as some kind of bludgeoning flail and it looks downright heavy too pulling the whole model towards the ground and needing both hands to support it. The narrative here is clearly and cleverly conveyed. He may carry the padlock and keys but he is the prisoner forced to lug them around and struggling under their weight.
He also comes with two spookily faceless bodyguards presumably to stop other ghosts trying to nick his keys. It would have been nice however if his mask had matched that of his peer in the Soul Wars box to tie the two together a little more and to help differentiate him from his body guards.
Sadly I’m not at all keen on the Dreadscythe Harridans. Perhaps they would have worked better in isolation but looking at them one almost feels that the designers used the best ideas for the Myrmourn Banshees already and were struggling to match them. There are two squads of female ghosts available to this army and whilst one is pretty much perfect the other smacks of trying too hard with too little inspiration in the creative tank. Whilst the veils of the Banshees show little and imply a great deal to create a wonderfully spooky effect the Harridans just come across has a little hammy. As special effects go having a skull for a face has been done to death already and given that this is the Warhammer universe where skills are literally everywhere a ghost with a skull for a face probably doesn’t make the “Top 10 most frightening things I’ve seen this week” list for even the most sheltered of citizens. I do wonder how they would look with the serene death masks of the Sanguinary guard – if I’m right, the answer is downright terrifying.
Then there are the flowers in their hair. I found myself asking if this might be sexist before deciding I was probably reading too much into it. Of course there is a long association of flowers with death, particularly to cover up the smell of ripe corpse puts out. Then again, as incorporeal beings ghost are not normally associated with being whiffy.
One wonders if the designers asked themselves “how do we represent female ghosts when all we have to play with his a white sheet with a skull on the front?”
“How about long hair?” another would ask.
“Good idea”, says the first, “but they might still be rock musicians”
“Hmmm.. how about flowers then – girls love flowers!”
Ultimately though it’s probably nothing and even if it isn’t it’s still a big improvement on boob armour. I don’t see any of the boy ghosts carrying floral arrangements into battle with them though…
Apparently the Harridans are all former healers who are being tortured by Nagash. Hands which were once dexterous have been turned into lethal blades and the Harridans are driven forwards against their will to slash at the enemy.
Which begs the question; what does Nagash have against healers anyway? Was he once beaten up by a doctor? Did a surgeon mock his taste in hats? Did Morathi dump him for a sexy neurosurgeon who drove a sports car and was “good with his hands”? Surely it cannot be that by saving lives he feels the healers are denying him souls? It’s not as though any of them are promising immortality. The soul still goes to Nagash, the doctors are only delaying the inevitable. The soul may not arrive quite as quickly but to an immortal like Nagash the delay should be barely noticeable. If that’s what he’s upset about it just seems downright petty. I know that as characters go Nagash can spectacularly small minded when the mood takes him but such an obvious dick move just smacks of lazy writing and makes the whole narrative less compelling. A truly well written baddie is one you find yourself sympathising with but GW stamped out any hope of moral complexity here by firmly reminding us that Nagash is just an arsehole and Sigmar is the good man who we ought to be cheering for.
The opportunity was here to create something truly terrifying but alas the designers bottled out at the last moment and then added insult to injury by saddling them with some rather silly background fiction.
Much better in my opinion are the Bladegheist Revenants. There is a sense of speed and motion here unmatched not just in the Nighthaunt range but across the broader spectrum of AoS as well. Zombies and skeletons may have typecast the undead as slow and ungainly but these are anything but.
The masks are also much more imposing than any skull and, being separate components to the rest of the body, can easily be used to make anyone you want look terrifying. Necron lords, dark eldar, the henchmen of radical inquisitors, the elite of the chaos cults, a troupe of particularly malevolent harlequins, if you need to inspire fear simply apply Bladegheist masks. My only fear is that they might be a little on the small side, it can be hard to judge scale exactly until the miniatures are properly released.
Sadly like the harridans their background seems a little off, at least based on what I’ve read of it so far. Apparently these are the ghosts of those who were murdered in confined spaces or buried alive and their wild swings comes from there frantic attempts to escape death during their final moments.
Their poses on the other hand would seem to imply skill as well as speed, the precise cuts of master duellists rather than the while hacking of those caged in an eternal claustrophobic death. Furthermore these have the look of elite warriors not trapped victims, a look intensified by their grim and fearsome masks. Again it’s a mismatch between design and execution that the writers would have been sensible to avoid. Far be it from me to stifle creative thinking but you can have too much of a good thing. On this occasion it smacks of trying a little too hard to be creative and ending up with something that is just contrived. Does Nagash need to have legions of ghosts defined by highly circumstantial deaths? The ghosts of those who were stabbed (but not shot) in meadows? The ghosts of those who were decapitated whilst on the phone? The ghosts of those who were poisoned whilst looking at a goldfish?
I’m aware of GW’s desire to create unique and copyright-able concepts but surely this is over-egging it. One look at these models is enough to tell you everything about their battlefield role. They are fast moving and wield large, double-handed swords. Their job, therefore, is to punch through the enemy lines, forcing a breech for the other ghosts to pour through. Surely you don’t need to have died in a confined space to be a ghostly shock trooper? Surely you just need to be good at fighting and not afraid of dying and as a ghost you should have one of those things down pat already.
We really can’t talk about the Nighthaunt without sparing a moment for the black coach. Unlike the rest of the range it’s been around for quite a while and the outgoing model was already old when I first discovered the vampire counts range. The old coach however was a distinctly solid and earthbound affair drawn by skeletal horses with none of the dynamism that today’s techniques make possible. The old one was so sedate it was probably stationary, its wheels locked solidly to the ground and the driver fast asleep, whilst the new one rattles along so fast it’s become airborne. Where a sleeping vampire needs to go in such a hurry remains unknown but it plays right to the core of the vampiric mythos, an undead lord rushing through the night to perform some unspeakable business or speeding back to his lair before the coming of the dawn.
Since the coming of the Age of Sigmar there has been a fear amongst long time fans that many old classics maybe gone for good. Across the fence in 40K the grim darkness of the far future has been more than willing to plumb the glories of the past for inspiration. From Wulfen to Genestealer Cultists concepts long thought forgotten are back on centre stage. AoS however has preferred to be new and innovative. Who cares about old square based fuddy-duddy’s when you have flying dwarves and fish elves riding giant turtles?
In the old days things were predictable; sure the rat ogres and plague monks, the squig hoppers and zombies might look a little past their best but sooner or later Games Workshop would get around to them just as they had with countless other old kits. In this new era however nothing is set in stone. The plus side is that we’ve delved into a world of boundless creativity, the negative is that we might never see new versions are well loved old models. Now old does not necessarily equate to bad, I enjoy a lump of lead as much as the next man, but some of the early plastics especially really do deserve to be replaced and soon. The black coach then offers a little glimmer of hope that Games Workshop haven’t left their history behind entirely here.
Speeding alongside the coach are a little flock of ghosts. I think these are intended as attendance carrying precious items for the convalescing vampire; a sword, a book and a chalice. The more I look at them however the more I think they are actually stealing things. There’s something conspiratorial about the glance exchanged by the two at the top, whilst the one at the side twitches the curtain aside for a nosey peek inside. The effect is emphasised by their positioning, hidden behind the coach’s driver and out of his line of sight. Of the lesser ghost we’ve seen these are the first not to be wearing iron shackles making me wonder more and more if they might be mischievous spirits who have temporarily escaped Nagash’s clutches and are now indulging in some stealthy high-jinx.
Back when I first got into Warhammer all the various sorts of undead where to be found under one banner, barring the Tomb Kings who were by then off doing their own thing. There were skeletons, zombies, ghouls and ghosts, all of them fairly generic, and generally there was one sort of each. Over time the range diversified but the idea of a whole army with a similar number of units to the Vampire Counts of that era made up exclusively of ghosts is still novel enough to blow my mind a little. Imagine if Games Workshop brought the same commitment to skeletons, zombies, even – dare I say it – mummies? And before you remind me that the Tomb Kings are dead and gone, never to rise again let me suggest that not all mummies are Egyptian. Imagine a race of bog bodies or corpse driven golems!
There is a line in the new Age of Sigmar rulebook which describes how, during the Age of Chaos, enslaved spirits were forced to dig up their own cadavers and mount their skulls on fortress walls. I wonder if Nagash has thought to do the same thing, sending the ghosts into the Nighthaunt and the corpses to become zombies – a sort of buy one get one free on undead armies.
In the old days the undead were defined by a lack of character. Hordes of zombies, skeletons or savage ghouls were puppeteered by powerful vampire lords and commanded to do their will. Beyond the most dominant undead creatures the person they had once been was entirely gone, all that remained was a cadaver shambling about doing its master’s bidding. The old Vampire Counts were equal opportunities employers, albeit also controlling micromanagers. Lords and peasants alike were welcome in their armies, your achievements in life made meaningless. Once they had you, you became a husk to do their bidding and nothing more. Not so the Nighthaunt. They are defined by their former lives and their deaths. Sometimes this is well written, the Craven King for example, at others it seems a little tagged on (the Harridans again I’m afraid).
If you’d told me before this release that Games Workshop planned a whole army of ghosts I would have questioned its viability. Could they really get a whole faction’s worth of models from such a simple concept without the whole thing becoming a little stretched and thin? Where would the variety come from? Games Workshop however have pulled it off in style. Some of the concepts are undoubtedly weaker than others but there’s nothing here that’s particularly objectionable.
This is the breath of fresh air that the Death range was desperately in need of, yet it’s not actually as radical as some of the things we’ve seen appearing amongst their living adversaries. Regardless of your thoughts on AoS (and frankly if you’re still full of rage and bitterness about the fate of the Old World it’s time to take a seat and re-evaluate) aesthetically and conceptually these tie in quite closely to the Vampire Counts of old, and the Shyishian Legions they’ve become. A High Elf might be a little taken aback if one of the Idoneth Deepkin waded ashore in Ulthuan, a Stormcast Eternal would cause quite a panic in the Empire and no true son of Grungni would tolerate the innovative thinking of the airborne Kharadrons, but a ghost from Silvania setting its eyes on a member of the Nighthaunt would at least know it was looking at a kindred spirit.
As usual however these are just my rambling thoughts and opinions. Are you a fan of the new ghosts or do you want to see them exorcised with extreme prejudice? Let me know what you think in the comments box below.
All the pretty pictures have been borrowed from Games Workshop without permission, barring the one at the top of my own Vampire Lord. He never did grow to become a terror in Silvania but I can hear him stirring in his grave in Shyish…