We all, I’m sure, have one or two “dream armies” lurking in the backs of our heads, the races we’ve never got around to buying but always said we will, someday. For me there’s the forces of the Imperium ready to counter my Chaos hosts; massed ranks of ragged Imperial Guardsmen, a few true-scaled Space Marines and the weird and inhuman agents of the Cult Mechanicus. Then there’s my elven Wild Hunt, mixing Wood Elves, Dark Elves and Sylvaneth together into a bloodthirsty cavalcade, racing from the depths of the forest upon a stormy winter’s night to feast upon the terrified villagers cowering beyond.
The big one for me though remains the dwarves. It’s the great white whale army, forever just around the corner but never quite started. In the past I always imagined it as the last defenders of Karak Drak, the great hold in the far north of the Warhammer World, believed – but never confirmed – to be overrun by Chaos. I loved the idea of those tenacious little dwarves sealing themselves off under their mountain whilst gibbering daemons and bloated spawn roamed the halls of their ancestors.
Furthermore, as I’m already a big fan of both Skaven and Goblins the Dwarves always seemed like a natural addition to the tryumvate. The war in the underway was for me one of the most compelling ideas in the Warhammer story and the time will come when I want to explore the good alongside the bad and the ugly. When I do finally get around to painting some Dwarves however, GW models may not be the first onto my desk. Both Avatars of War and MOMintituras have turned out some excellent models whereas GW’s record on the race is distinctly shaky. Part of the trouble is they don’t seem able to settle on an aesthetic for more than an edition or so, do they want tough little Vikings, iron-clad steam warriors or jolly little Santas with candles on their hats? The result is a jumble of styles that misses the mark of all-things-to-all-men and instead plunges into the abyss of not-quite-any-of-them.
With Age of Sigmar however GW have been offered a fresh start. No longer do they have to conform to the expectations of a wider marketplace which is already offering them stiff competition. They are free once more to innovate and explore. Rather than pursuing their competitors, constantly struggling to undermine and outdo them, they can lead, spinning off novel ideas without fear and bounding on to the next before the wider industry has woken up.
In some ways it seems odd then that, until now, they’ve been so conservative. Khorne Bloodbound, Disciples of Tzeentch, Ironjaws and Sylvaneth could all have fitted comfortably into the old Warhammer world. Stormcast Eternals may seem a little more unusual at first glance but they’re essentially just Space Marines ported from one setting to another, regardless of what pedants will tell you. Only GW’s other post-end times Dwarf release, the Fyreslayers, has dared to go break the mould. Without seeing some sales figures I’ve no idea if a silent majority are out there lovingly painting the angry sons of Grimnir but there’s no denying that the torrent of criticism aimed at them would be enough to turn even the hardiest Hearthguard’s beard white. I’ll admit that, until I got a good look at them at Warhammer World, I wasn’t too sold on them myself.
It’s a shame that the Fyreslayers came in for such a bum deal (I couldn’t help myself) as some of the models are excellent – for my money the Runemaster and Battlesmith remain some of the best models GW has released in recent years (and if it wasn’t for the fact that my wallet makes painful whimpering sounds every time I look at them I’d have painted them long ago).
The majority of people I suspect were still holding out for plastic Slayers that they could use in old-Warhammer, which – so long as one doesn’t mind a few aesthetic differences – one still could. Others were just upset with the aesthetic break from the dwarves they were familiar with and a few were just good, old-fashioned homophobes bleating pitifully about painting near-naked dudes. They at least have nothing to fear from the Kharadrons as there isn’t a scrap of flesh on them. It seems that, in whatever divorce settlement followed the breakup of the Dwarven peoples, the Kharadrons got all the clothes and the Fyreslayers were left hammering bits of metal into their own flesh for protection and growing their beards long enough to cover their goolies.
At the time of the Fyreslayer’s release Age of Sigmar was yet to bed in. Most people were still looking at it as Warhammer plus Space Marines, rather than as a universe in its own right. When we heard that new, slayer-esque dwarves were being released many of us jumped to the conclusion that we would be seeing plastic slayers at last, perhaps with a few new units mixed in. Nothing that we couldn’t add to our existing armies safe in the knowledge that we could still use them in Warhammer 9th Edition when Games Workshop recognised that it had all been a huge mistake and resurrected the Old World. What a surprise when instead it was bum flashers as far as the eye could see.
Time has knocked that idea out of us. Orruk brutes may pass for Orc Big ‘uns and Kurnoth Hunters may be the basis of for tree-kin conversions, but overall the cold light of Sigmar has cut through our Warhammer hangover. This can only be a good thing because these releases deserve to be seen on their own merits rather than on how well they fit into a world they weren’t designed for.
Like the Fyreslayers the Kharadron Overlords may prove to be an acquired taste for some, although they’ve certainly escaped the torrent of wrath that was poured upon their pert-buttocked brothers. Another reason for this may be that GW made the shrewd move of previewing them what now seems like months ago and any potential negativity towards the idea of sky-dwarves was drowned out by the outpouring of positivity towards the company’s more open and fan-focussed attitudes.
Some, like the Arkanaut Company, will already look fairly familiar, taking design cues from the Irondrakes of old. Others, like the great Lord-Magnate Brokk Grungsson, might take a little more getting used to. Ultimately the top hat and curly moustache combo may be somewhat like marmite – some will love it, others will hate it – although speaking for myself I’m still on the fence (unlike on the subject of marmite which is foul death-paste).
Then there’s the balloons which have proved to be equally divisive. In some quarters the idea of heavily armoured floatation devises has gone down like, well, a lead balloon. However I have to admit I rather like them, they’re chunky and powerful, just as you would expect from Dwarven equipment, with none of the fancy sails or fabrics that you’d expect from the likes of the elves (material which would only melt and fray in the harsh chemical clouds anyway).
The result is a heady mix of Jules Verne and Jack Sparrow, less Tolkien, more Tolkien-bout a revolution (industrial of course). They’re a steampunk race for those who don’t like the body horror of Skaven (or who’re just afraid of rats). As necessitated by their lifestyle among the corrosive clouds of the upper atmosphere the Kharadron Overlords are entirely clad in armour, although they manage to do so with more personality than the clone wars Stormcasts.
They also have a bit of a pirate theme, emphasised by the leader of the Grundstok Thunderers who has a peg leg and a mechanical parrot. Luckily they stopped short of a hook for a hand – possibly because nowadays that reads more as “radical preacher” than “Peter Pan villain”.
Of course many people will decide to take this further and convert these into pirates, perhaps even taking advantage of the freeform nature of AoS to mix in Orcs and Dark Elves. Personally though I’m looking forward to the first person who recreates scenes from the movie Titanic (a film I’ve never actually seen all the way through, though judging from the bits I have caught would have been immeasurably improved by the addition of some steampunk dwarves).
The idea of using them to convert Squats has often been mooted and, although the rank and file are likely to be a little on the large side (supposition but scale creep has definitely had its part to play since the Space Dwarves went extinct all those editions ago), there’s certainly plenty of potential to be explored there.
Of course no discussion of the Kharadron Overlords is complete without mentioning the skyships. Ranging from the massive Ironclad down to the nippy Gunhauler these airborne vessels fill the role of heavy-hitting centrepiece traditionally given over to giant monsters in other armies. Unlike many of those monsters however, which serve as something half-way between useful backup and outsized pet, the skyvessels are the cornerstone of the faction. Without them they couldn’t travel between their aerial cities, mine the clouds or build their empire among the clouds.
Each ship also comes with its own crew of models built in, or hanging on. Each is a character in their own right and, in spite of GW’s early previews, we’re only now starting the see the vessels close up enough to get a proper look at them.
Even bigger ships are described in the background and the more advanced scratchbuilders will already be breaking out the plasticard ready to work wonders. In April’s White Dwarf designer Oliver Norman noted “The ships were city-sized warships in John (Blanche)’s first sketches… We had to scale it back, as brilliant as a six-foot long flying model battleship would be”. As usual when I get an idea that I know I have neither the time, money or space to realise, I’ll attempt to use the reach of this blog to plant the idea in someone else’s head instead. Picture a model of one of these mighty sky-ships, big enough to serve as both display shelf for a Kharadron collection, and terrain board for them to battle over. It would be a mighty undertaking of course but it’s creator would rightly be the envy of their friends. Why battle over a green table cloth ever again when your army could instead be racing across the decks of a bespoke titan of the skies or scrambling across narrow walkways to reach the smaller vessels anchored above?
The Kharadron Overlords have broken away from their dwarven forebears, but they’ve done so far more elegantly than the Fyreslayers. Many of the new units, even the skyships, could be added to an old school dwarf army and blend in nicely – sometimes with a little conversion – a regard in which the Fyreslayers are always going to struggle. Put them all together however and they have a character all their own.
At this point its seeming more and more that Dwarves who live in mountain holds are a thing of the past for GW, a sideline but hardly a priority. If you want to march out of your mines to drive off the grobi scum you’d better do it in the company of another manufacturer. GW have left their hidebound competitors trudging in the dust, employing a degree of innovation which, ironically, none of their Old World Dwarves would ever have approved of.
Whilst the other races were subjugated by Chaos, or hid behind the walls of Sigmarland, the Kharadron got down to the business of building an empire in the clouds, presumably because none of those winged chaos daemons ever thought to look up. The source of their power comes from the (presumably magical) aether-gold they found there. To quote Oliver Norman again “The Kharadron Overlords are a race of duardin that don’t mine the earth like Dwarfs of old, but engage in something like gas mining in the clouds high above the realms”. Doesn’t that sound fantastic – a race of dwarves in their skyships, drawing rare metals from the clouds high above the realms, gathering a precious resource far out of the reach of their competitors through a combining of newfangled technology and old-fashioned gumption? And then they overegg it by making everything about aether-gold.
To write good fantasy or science fiction one has to keep a close eye on how many wacky ideas one includes. Naturally one wants one’s setting to be distinct from reality and alive with creativity. What one should avoid however is making it so “out there” that the readers feel disconnected from it, without any solid ground to stand upon. When it comes to convincing people of the fantastic, less is always more.
Thus the introduction of aether-gold as a kind of dwarven midichlorians does more to shake me out of my sense of immersion in the setting than it does to draw me in. In terms of ridiculous plot tokens it’s not quite as grating as the ur-gold of the fyreslayers (really, text-speaking dwarves, what will they think of next – ghost dinosaurs?) but it’s still enough to jar with me. Then again I never had any issue with warpstone, the Skaven’s preferred chemical, so perhaps I’m just a big hypocrite?
Not everything has changed though, the dwarves may live in the sky and have done away with gods and kings alike, but they’re still dwarves at heart. Craftsmanship and grudges (so long as they don’t impact profits) are still important, and I doubt that a single one of them is clean-shaven under those suits. Meanwhile the keeps and holds of the Old World have becomes the Skyports of the new. The Karak’s (that’s “hold” for those who don’t speak Khazalid) have become Baraks (ports, think of Barak Varr, the huge dwarven seaport in the Old World). A host of these Baraks have been built, with six main ones controlling the empire; Barak-Nar, Barak-Zilfin, Barak-Zon, Barak-Urbaz, Barak-Mhornar and Barak-Thryng. No mention of Barak Obama though…
Of course, some people are naturally cheesed off at the arrival of a high-tech race in flying ships waving gatling guns around whilst their chosen faction is still stuck with axes and bows. On the tabletop however this is apparently countered by a lack of powerful wizards and giant magical monsters whilst in the background fiction the balancing factor is this faction’s lack of military aspiration. We’re used to the idea of Warhammer as being about large-scale organised violence all-day every-day, it’s not called “peace-hammer” after all, so they idea of a race that’s more mercantile in nature tends to catch us off guard. It’s fair to say that if the Kharadron Overlords combined their technological might with the social attitudes of Khorne worshippers the Mortal Realms would be a very different, and markedly less populated, place. Of course what happens when the Stormcasts buy themselves some aether-gold weaponry remains to be seen. Hopefully GW have another plot device up their sleeves, otherwise the rise of a particularly powerful world police becomes inevitable. In the meantime however these dwarves don’t necessarily want to exterminate the other races they encounter, they want to trade with them if they can.
The Kharadron Overlords are a demonstration of what Age of Sigmar is capable of if allowed to stretch its wings a little. More and more the setting steps out of Warhammer’s shadow and becomes a creature in its own right. I for one welcome our new Kharadron Overlords.
All artwork and images belong to Games Workshop and are used without permission. Grobi scum will be shot on sight!