Adding Character to your Army

Guest writer Thurston “Thirsty” Hillman tells us the importance of adding a little flair to your Warhammer 40k army.

Hey folks, I’m Thurston and I have a gaming problem. I mainly do freelance writing for RPG companies (you might see my name floating around the Pathfinder RPG scene), but today I’m stepping in to contribute an article here!

I’ve been playing 40k since back in the early days of 3rd edition, having started with a swarm of tyranids spawned from a 6 model box of genestealers. Even back in those early bug-themed days of my playing career, I’d always found myself focused on the narrative side of the game. For my first article here at Frontline Gaming, I wanted to touch on something near and dear to my playing style: adding character to your army.

Do you mean like, independent characters?

Nope, even though they are a major part of it!

When I talk about character, I’m touching on the strong narrative aspects of 40k. Even the most competitive players I know have some form of individual character to their army, whether it be their commander who ‘always rolls a 1 on their combi-melta shot’, that one sergeant who gets armed with a powerfist because it looked cool and has somehow worked on the table ever since, or even a player belief that certain units in an army are ‘cursed’ and unplayable despite how good the meta might view them. These are the things beyond the ‘roll a crap ton of dice and take off models’ that bring us back to the table for more and more games.

Pick what sings to you: I’ve had numerous armies in my life, and each of them ended up on the gaming table because I found myself invested in their history and lore. When I started playing Tau (I had an anime phase) I really dug into the few bits of Tau lore and made up backgrounds for every unit in my army. I went to a local event, Astronomi-Con Winnipeg, and had my amazing girlfriend put together custom army list for me to hand out to opponents and the judges. The writing remains one of the coolest things I’ve done with an army, and was a stepping stone to further forge the army’s narrative for future events.


Note: My awesome girlfriend put this list together a few years ago. You might recognize her work, as she made the recent ‘State of War’ infograph

 Getting in character: So how do you create character in an army? Well, the first thing to do is play games. If you’ve got a new army that you’ve started assembling, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get out there and play some games with that army, even if it’s a work-in-progress army. By playing games some preliminary games, you can start creating your own narrative for the army, and work it into the actual process of building/painting the full force.

 You need more Flair: Some people don’t convert models, some people convert their models REALLY well. I fall into a middle ground, and find that some of my more simple conversions end up getting me invested in the army. When I put together some Astral Claws several years ago, I individually converted each tactical marine with a variety of little upgrades. As I assembled & painted the models, I ended up coming up with stories for each of them. The marine bedecked in purity seals was a staunch adherent to the Cult of the Emperor (sucks to be him if he survives the Badab War), while another marine was more of a berserker just because they were clad in Mk. V armor with a chainsword and Phobos-pattern bolter with a chainsaw front attachment. Sometimes, these little changes are all you need to give your army some added character, not to mention motivations for how to run them on the table.


 “Does your army have enough flair?”

Choices, choices, choices: We all make mistakes when stepping into a new army. Even if you’ve spent hours researching the ‘bestest net list’, you end up wanting to tweak things to your preference. Some of the most thematic choices I’ve seen in armies, are those that stem from so-called ‘bad choices’ in unit/character builds. In my current army (AdMech), I’ve been running a vanguard alpha with a power sword. It’s 100% NOT the best option (seriously, don’t do it), but I really had no clue when I built the model, so I went with what looked cool. Over two-dozen games into the army, and anytime I debate switching this gear, I end up having some godsend moment in close combat that shuts down any notion of replacing him.

Let me Tell You About This Army I Had

Here’s an expanded example of how you can add character to an army.

Back in 3rd edition, the first Daemon Hunters codex got released, and I was all in on Grey Knights. I started playing dozens of games with silver primed models, starting with just a few squads of power-armored badasses. One thing that the old Gray Knights had was a name badge for every model. As our community was pretty big at the time, I ended up naming every model in my army after someone in the Winnipeg 40k community. Picking up more models, I ended up ‘promoting’ members into new roles. My first terminators were made up of previous power armored models who I’d picked out as achieving amazing feats on the table. My first Gray Knight dreadnaught—remember, these were the days before Matrix stompy robo-GKs Dreadknights—ended up being a particular member of the community who kept dying gruesome deaths in every game I played.

Eventually, everything came together in the army and I ended up going to our biggest local event of the time (a tournament called Warcon). For the entire day, I shouted out the achievements of each model in my army, spouting out things like “Bruce! You just killed the enemy commander!” or “Alex, you’re the only model left and surrounded by ten dark eldar!”. It may sound ridiculous, but everyone in the community knew about the army, and would actually come up and ask me how they were doing in my ‘rank-up system’.

Gaming the Story

I want to end by saying that 40k is entirely fine when played as a competitive game (balance nitpicking aside), but it truly shines when played for the story and progress of your army. It’s like watching a professional sports player: it’s not all just about the Win/Loss ratio, it’s also about seeing an accumulation of stories. In five years, for most of us, it won’t matter about our W/L ratio with an army, but we’ll always remember that one time when three Fire Warriors beat a Bloodthirster in close combat.

Bloodthirster End

About Jason

Raw Dogger, aka, Phat J Sleaze (formerly of the Booty Boyzzz) is a highly opinionated, questionably skilled 40k enthusiast. When not working at Frontline Gaming, he can be found down on Jabroni Avenue.

6 Responses to “Adding Character to your Army”

  1. Avatar
    Fabio July 25, 2016 8:55 am #

    Greta first article Thursty! Can’t wait to see more of your work!!!

  2. Avatar
    Tiberius July 26, 2016 1:45 am #

    The main problem i usually have with fluffy lists is that fluffy stuff is usually fluffy because its hugely overpriced in points. I absolutely love hellhounds and power weapons but as soon as i start putting them in my guard lists i never have points left for anything else. I WANT TO TAKE ALL THE STUFF.

    • Avatar
      abusepuppy July 26, 2016 3:09 am #

      There is a skill to listbuilding even in the context of a fluffy or noncompetitive list- simply slapping a power weapon on every sergeant doesn’t make a list fluff or interesting in and of itself. The skill of list writing is about _means_, not _goals_; if you pick as your goal fitting a particular set of units/upgrades (as opposed to picking a goal of the strongest list possible or whatnot) the path you take to an “optimum” list is going to be very different, though guided by the same process.

      • Avatar
        David Hayden July 27, 2016 9:27 pm #

        Well said abusepuppy! I do competitive fluff lists, and I spend a lot of time coming up with my lists, possibly more than most competitive players because you have to work hard to make the fluff effective. Before I bought my first CSM miniature, I spent a month working on possible lists. To be fair, Chaos Marines make this task harder. I made a lot of compromises to get something that would be fun to play and fit my narrative vision.

        I also play Eldar, and this is easier with them. I don’t even own a Wraithknight or any jet bikes, unless you count the Vypers. I play a fun list of aspect warriors because that’s what brought me into the game in the 90’s. Now I’m working on a list built around Karandras and Striking Scorpions. I’d love to have nothing but Scorpions, so the art is finding the balance between a mix of effective units and an army that feels like a Scorpion-themed army.

    • Avatar
      TheMostGood July 26, 2016 10:11 pm #

      Manage your expectations.

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