Warning: this review contains significant spoilers about the Traitor Legions book contents, especially as relates to the Emperor’s Children. If you’re trying to avoid that for some reason, you probably should go away now.
The Traitor Legion book details the nine different space marine legions that turned to the powers of Chaos, with each one getting its own set of special rules akin to the Chapter Tactics of the loyalist books and a set of multi-formation detachments (and in some cases new formations) to go with it. As with the Angels of Death book that is its counterpart, each of the legions also has a new set of warlord traits and artefacts that it can choose to take in place of the ones presented in the Chaos Space Marines book. It also details the history and personality of each of the nine Traitor Legions in turn and comes with a bunch of fancy new color art in the style that is common to the other 7th Edition books.
This review will be looking in particular at the Emperor’s Children legion, the followers of Slaanesh and originators of the Noise Marines and their psycho-sonic weapons. As many of the folks here at Frontline are pretty excited about the Legions book, you can expect to see reviews of each of the others in turn (and in fact some of them are already scheduled or published as of the writing of this article)- however, I won’t be discussing them here except in the most passing of senses.
In order to qualify as an Emperor’s Children detachment, a detachment of Chaos Space Marines can contain no unique models other than Lucius the Eternal, must take the Mark of Slaanesh (or Daemon of Slaanesh) on every model able to do so, and can contain no units with other Marks. This can put a lot of restrictions on you, since you’re paying an extra 2-4pts per model for every guy in your army and lose access to some useful tools and options; however, the benefits for doing so are not inconsiderable.
First off, all your models have Feel No Pain (6+), which improves to 4+ when in a unit with the Banner of Excess. While this may not seem like much, the ability to shrug off 15% of the wounds you take can be surprisingly effective and every once in a while it will give your opponent absolute fits as you pass a couple of really important 6+s and suddenly a squad they counted on being dead is still alive and kicking. However, note that unlike the Iron Hands version of the trait, it does not give a blanket +1 to FNP rolls- it only stacks with the Banner’s bonus, not FNP from other sources (such as psychic powers, etc.) Even so, it’s a pretty big boon (if something of a strange one) that will be useful to essentially every army.
Second, all your models have the Fearless special rule as well as getting Veterans of the Long War for free. Rerolls against Space Marines is a pretty dang handy thing to have, especially since there’s so many of them around these days, and +1 Leadership can be nice for stuff like Psychic Shriek and whatnot. But really, the complete immunity to morale and pinning is the golden part here, as it’s exactly what Chaos players have been wanting for a while now. Keep in mind, however, that it will prevent you from Going to Ground as well as escaping from combat with targets you can’t hurt. Still, even with the minor downsides it’s a really nice thing to ensure you never get Swept in combat or panic and run off an objective.
Third, all of your units with Veterans of the Long War (which is to say basically all of them) get a single free attack if they are killed in combat before they are able to swing. This one is pretty bizarre and won’t come up very often, because you’re Slaanesh. Having high Initiative values is basically your thing. But for those rare occasions when you get pounced by some Genestealers or an Assassin or you charge into terrain without grenades, I guess it’s okay? Better than not having anything, at least. The nice trick with this one is on Power Fists or Meltabombs, where it guarantees you a chance to swing- however, do be wary, since there’s no guarantee you’ll actually do anything when you lose your character this way.
Fourth and probably least importantly, your psykers can choose to generate all of their powers on the Slaanesh table if they want to (rather than the weird “up to half” thing that CSM are limited to in their codex.) The Slaanesh table has a lot of good effects on it so this isn’t a terrible ability, but with access to Telepathy and Biomancy you can do most of its stuff (as well as other excellent tricks) so it’s often gonna be the case that you look elsewhere. Still, the option is there.
As a final bonus, you can take Noise Marines as troops without needing a Chaos Lord. This is nice for smaller games where you don’t want to sink those points in and are looking to take a Sorcerer instead, but as we’ll see in a moment you are probably going to still end up taking a Lord anyways.
The Emperor’s Children bonuses are probably around middle tier for the various legions; they’re definitely better than some, but they aren’t the very best. The real high point for them is that they are virtually always applicable- there aren’t going to be very many games where you don’t get to roll those 6+s to try and keep your guys alive. You get a damage mitigation ability and a morale mitigation ability and both of those are very handy things, so we don’t really have a lot to complain about here. Are they worse than the loyalist Chapter Tactics? Eh, maybe? But if so, not by much and not universally- I mean, sure, White Scars blow them out of the water, but let’s be fair: White Scars are better than most things.
Warlord Traits and Artefacts
As with all supplements and companion books, Traitor Legions introduces a set of unique warlord traits and artefacts that an Emperor’s Children detachment can select from. These features are optional, and you still have access to the normal traits and artefacts if you prefer them (though of course you can’t mix them on the same character, as you aren’t allowed more than one of either.) Unfortunately, neither set is exceptionally exciting, though there are some good options to pick from in the artifacts list.
The warlord traits list mostly falls prey to the problem with so many of the other, similar lists: it gives either very small bonuses or bonuses only to the warlord themself, neither of which are exciting. Eternal Warrior isn’t a total dud but is far too situational; +2 Initiative is just baffling- there are only a handful of models in the game that even strike simultaneously with a Slaanesh Lord in the first place (and god forbid a Demon Prince gets it) ; +1 to Feel No Pain for the warlord and squad is actually quite good, especially if you bought the Banner; Fear checks on 3d6 are still totally worthless against anything but Orks; +1 attack for every wound you lose is basically a joke, especially since there is no real way to get your wounds back; auto-passing Look Out Sir rolls is not just bad but also confusing as to why it’s even in there. All in all, the warlord traits are pretty disappointing- even the Chaos Marines table is better than this (since you could easily get Hatred or Infiltrate.)
The artefacts are much better; there are still quite a few duds, but since you can pick and choose what you want that isn’t really relevant. Intoxicating Elixer is one that will grab a lot of people’s attention; it gives you d3 rolls on the Combat Drugs chart (see below) which are cumulative with themselves and any other rolls you make. Bonuses to Strength, Toughness, and Attacks are all much appreciated and can turn a Lord (or even a lesser character) into a real fighting machine. At 25pts, it’s not cheap but will almost always give you something of relevance. Similarly, the Blissgiver is on the expensive side for a weapon at 30pts, especially with only AP3 to its name, but being a Daemon Weapon means it can pour out a lot of attacks and every successful wound forces a Leadership check to avoid being removed as a casualty. It’s not nearly as good as, say, the Axe of Blind Fury but it can scare anything without 2+ armor pretty effectively (and when put on a Daemon Prince even they aren’t safe.)
The Endless Grin is an interesting item; at 10pts it’s the cheapest of the relics and gives its bearer Fear (meh) and a -1 Leadership aura out to 6″. The penalty is small, but this sort of effect can be quite powerful, especially against deathstars or other big units. Chaos does have a couple other ways to stack up penalties (the Heldrake Terror Pack, Terrify, etc) so there’s some potential there in combination with Pinning weapons and whatnot. If you’re not buying anything else, it’s probably worth picking it up just for the off-chance. The Shriekwave is also on the border of being good, but I think it falls just a bit short. 20pts for a shooting weapon isn’t too backbreaking, and its profile is excellent: S8 AP2 d6 shots and forces a Leadership check on each unit hit, with a failure giving you a reroll to wound. However, a 12″ range and a once-per-game limitation make it extremely difficult to use; the chances of just rolling a 2 and then missing one shot and having them pass a cover save on the other are just way, way too high.
The last pair of artefacts get bottom ranking just because they don’t do a lot. The Soulstealer Lash isn’t too expensive (20pts) and replaces one weapon with a paired shooting/melee option. The shooting option is only 6″ range and S4 AP5, with the melee version likewise being AP5; however, both of them become AP2 and Instant Death on a 6 to wound, which is a neat gimmick. But for as much as it costs I think it needs to do a lot more, as the “rending” is just too unreliable and too weak of base stats to be much use. The Bolts of Ecstatic Vexation have some similar problems- they give any Bolt weapons carried by the character Blast, Ignores Cover, and Pinning (essentially making them a Sonic weapon, though not in name.) Used with a Combi-Bolter or Combi-weapon they can be pretty interesting, but at the end of the day it is not a hugely exciting profile and the cost is nontrivial at 15pts.
None of the Slaaneshi artefacts are real standouts and they aren’t going to be the reason you take Slaanesh in a list; however, a couple of them are worth considering and as noted, you don’t have to take off the list, which is a big plus.
The Chaos psychic tables have been filled out to be “full” disciplines now, which gives you a lot more options. More importantly, however, the three new powers that were added to each table are a significant upgrade over most of the previous ones, so your chances of rolling a “dud” power are a lot lower- though of course this also means that your chances of rolling the specific power you want are much lower as well. Slaanesh’s chart was fairly decent before so the upgrades bring it to around where the mid-tier disciplines like Biomancy sit at; since most people are only passingly familiar with the powers in the first place, we’ll go ahead and talk about all of the powers in turn.
The Primaris, Sensory Overload, is one of the most lackluster of them now, sadly; although it lists its type as witchfire, it secretly is a malediction in disguise. Four S4 AP4 shots are unlikely to do any real damage to most targets, though once in a while you’ll push a couple wounds through. The real features you care about are the special abilities- Blind, Pinning, and Concussive all together make for several chances to debuff the enemy pretty thoroughly. Blind is generally going to be the one that matters most, as it isn’t reliant on doing damage; as long as you score at least one hit, they have to make a test, and there typically are very few ways to trigger Blind in the psychic phase. Pinning is reasonably likely to go off against most things, though there are a lot more units immune to it- still, another chance to make the enemy BS1 and unable to move is nice when it works. Concussive is fairly useless, since there aren’t that many multiwound models around for the most part (and even fewer that will care about a temporary drop in Initiative.)
Hysterical Frenzy is one of two excellent blessings in the discipline; it grants a random bonus to either Attacks, Initiative, or Strength to a whole unit. Though you can sometimes get screwed by just getting +1 Init on a unit that is already higher than the enemy, casting it on Cultists has a much higher chance of being relevant (since the bonuses overall benefit them more) and even on other units it can really make a difference. It has the advantage over many other Biomancy buffs of affecting a whole squad, so you want to have a good-sized unit that can take advantage of it. Synchronizing well with Frenzy is the second power on the table, Delightful Agonies, which grants a whole unit the Feel No Pain (4+) rule. Since the spell is only WC1, it compares very favorably with Endurance and other, similar spells and even though it doesn’t stack with the FNP(6+) you already have across the detachment, it’s still excellent.
Symphony of Pain is the discipline’s malediction, which comes with two different effects tacked onto it. The first is fairly minor, giving the target -1 WS/BS for the duration of the spell; the second half is the one that you typically care about, making all Sonic weapons that shoot the target +1 Str (which stacks from the bonus from the Kakophoni formation.) The spell isn’t exceptional because it’s so niche against a lot of targets, but it can tip a close fight or turn down the effectiveness of a large unit (especially Orks or IG or the like) and it can be useful for pumping up your guns to hit a really hard target.
The last three spells are all witchfires of varying quality. Sonic Shockwave is a nova in the usual mold of such things these days- 9″ range, S5 AP4, Ignores Cover, Pinning, d6 hits. The combination of good Str/AP and Ignores Cover means that, much like Cleansing Flame, it can do damage to all kinds of units and can seriously threaten many types of lighter infantry, while Pinning also gives it a bit of general utility. It is particularly handy when used for (or against) FMCs, like many novas. Aural Onslaught is the first of the warp charge 2 powers and is a beam with fairly common stats- S8 AP2 and 18″ can usually do some significant damage to a couple of units or a parking lot, and the small bonus of rerolling wounds against targets that fail a Leadership check is kinda cute. (Why couldn’t this have been what the one-use relic did?) It’s expensive enough that it isn’t a complete fistpump of a spell, but the stats aren’t bad and on a quick-moving character it can be quite useful. Last we have Apoplectic Glee, which is a fairly bizarre spell that also clocks in at WC2. It is a witchfire and has to roll to hit once, which if it does it automatically causes every model in the unit to take a hit at their own Strength. This is pretty lackluster against anything with a good armor save, like Tactical Marines (since it uses unmodified strength and no AP value), but can do some damage to a big blob of Cultists or Flesh Hounds or the like. Oddly, it does not prevent cover saves despite being described as forcing targets own bodies to tear themselves apart- I guess you can just hide from yourself behind a rock?
The three added spells (Sonic Shockwave, Aural Onslaught, and Delightful Agonies) largely set the tone for the discipline as a whole- you have a bunch of witchfires with minor debuffs on them and a couple of strong blessings with combat buffs. Taken as a set, the Slaanesh discipline is a fairly reliable thing when you roll on it; for a ML3 character, you’ll be hard-pressed not to get something that is at least reasonably useful. Of course, this is contingent on your army being able to use the buffs and debuffs in the discipline- if you don’t have any sonic weapons then obviously Symphony of Pain is not really very impressive, and unless you have a good way to transport your psyker near the enemy the various shooting attacks won’t be terribly useful. A Steed of Slaanesh is highly recommended here- not only does it give you a 12″ move, but you also have Outflank/Acute Senses on the character, allowing them to safely slip up on an enemy that tries to turtle on their half of the board. A list also needs a reasonable amount of close combat ability to make best use of the discipline- if you don’t have any combat units at all, it’s going to look a lot less impressive.
This is where we hit the real gold for Emperor’s Children. Slaanesh is lucky in that it is one of the two alignments that get a new formation as part of the book- although arguably this is a sort of backhanded bonus, since the two that did not had already gotten their formations previously in other supplements. Still, what they do get is rather excellent, so there’s little room to complain. Like all of the other legions, the Emperor’s Children also get a decurion-style multiformation in addition to their one bonus formation.
The formation they get is the Kakophoni, which I guarantee you every player will spell wrong and in a different way. It consists of a single Chaos Lord (or Lucius the Eternal) and three to six units of Noise Marines; all sonic weapons in the formation gain the Shred rule and if you maximize the number of squads, they also gain +1 Strength on those guns. These are both excellent bonuses that can really pump up the damage output of your squads- S9 Blastmasters will tear HP off vehicles quite rapidly and S5 Sonic Blasters will not only make short work of most infantry but also can glance out lighter vehicles in a pinch. The 24″ range and salvo fire modes are still problematic on the Sonic Blasters, but there’s ways around that (such as buying a transport) and it’s not so bad that you can’t use them. The fact that Slaanesh’s number is the lowest at six also makes taking advantage of the formation a lot easier, since it’s fewer units required to get the full benefit. The formation also gives all of the units the Split Fire rule, which can help if you want to make use of those Sonic Blasters; you can shoot them at a nearby target while the Blastmaster aims at something different, or point a Doom Siren at one thing while the rest of the squad hammers something else. Note that the Chaos Lord/Lucius also gains the rule, which means that if they join a squad from outside of the formation, that squad will be able to split their shots as well.
Their decurion, unfortunately, is a little more awkward- not bad per se, but mixes with things in an odd way. Called the Rapturous Battalion, it gives the standard “reroll your trait on the Slaanesh table” thing of course, though given how lackluster that table is you’ll probably roll elsewhere anyways. But its main benefit is that all models in your army can do C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-Combat Drugs, yeah baby! Like Dark Eldar, the army rolls once on a table at the start of each game, getting a +1 bonus to either Weapon Skill, Ballistic Skill, Strength, Toughness, Initiative, or Attacks- all of them fairly good bonuses, with only Initiative really being “redundant” and even then not on Cultists or Spawn, who can still use the help.
The tricky part comes from how you put your army together- while you might assume that you would want a Kakophoni as your core detachment (it being the Slaanesh-themed new option and all), but it actually has very limited synergy with the Rapturous Battalion, since only two of the bonuses (+1BS, +1T) are at all useful outside of close combat and Noise Marines can’t be equipped to be melee/shooting dualists. However, the other core option (the Chaos Warband) benefits a lot more from it and is a reasonable choice on its own; the various auxiliary choices also tend to make extremely good use of the bonuses, so it feels a bit strange to actually go with the “obvious” choice. As with all of the decurions in the book, it has the option to take a Lord, Sorcerer, Apostle, or Daemon Prince as a standalone command choice as well, which is nice to have.
The auxiliary options are lacking a couple things that might be nice, but overall they are solid. Lost and the Damned (1 Apostle, 4-8 Cultists) gives them options for some recycling troops that gain a lot from almost any of the Combat Drug bonuses; the Terminator Annihilation Force (Lord/Sorc + 3-5 Terminators) lets you bring in a bunch of Deep Striking units that can not only blast something on arrival but also are ongoing melee threats, most especially because of their ability to strike before enemies in combat; a Raptor Talon (Lord + 3-5 units of Raptors/Warp Talons) can give you a lot of Melta appearing that can also get in immediate assaults, which is not something to underestimate. The Heldrake Terror Pack (2-4 Heldrakes) is not only dangerous in its own right but can also seriously debuff enemy Leadership for all of those Pinning checks from your sonic guns (and is thematic to boot); the Cult of Destruction (Warpsmith + 3-5 Obliterators/Mutilators) can put out a lot of shooting with a variety of guns as well as having significant melee presence, which is a nice support to your already-strong shooting- however, it is worth noting that Obliterators gain essentially nothing from the Mark of Slaanesh. The Rapturous Battalion also has access to the Helforged Warpack (Warpsmith + 3-5 Daemon Engines) and Fist of the Gods (Warpsmith + 3-5 squads of tanks) formations, as well as Chaos Spawn as a solo inclusion.
I think it’s legitimately possible to build a good detachment out of either the Kakophoni or Chaos Warband as your core and then expanding from them; any of the auxiliaries with a significant number of non-vehicle units in them can potentially make good use of the Rapturous Battalion’s bonuses, so leaning towards close combat-oriented options such as the Cultists, Terminators, or Raptors seems like a good bet.
So, with the final tally on all of this known, is it really going to affect competitive play? Will CSM be good again, and stand on even footing with their loyalist brethren? Is it going to fix the long, long losing streak the book has had? Short answer: no. But the long answer is a lot more complicated than that, because as usual complex issues don’t really boil down to one-word summaries.
The Emperor’s Children can’t really compete with the top tier of competitive armies these days. I don’t say that as an indictment of them; indeed, if they could I would be giving the book a lot harsher review, because I don’t think GW should be writing more rules that can compete with those armies, generally speaking. Eldar, Daemons, Space Marines, and Renegades have access to some utterly brutal stuff these days and they can roll right over the top of most “fair” armies out there. So no, CSM are not going to suddenly pop up to the top here (except insomuch as they can be allied into some of the existing Chaos lists in order to add some additional shenanigans), but that is overall a good thing because it means that most stuff in the book is far, far more balanced and interesting to play with than a lot of the “well I guess I’ll take twenty of the best thing in the codex because it’s cheap and amazing” armies. And I say that speaking as someone who regularly plays those armies.
But outside of that context- if we’re talking about casual pickup games, mid- or low-table tournament games, or just screwing around with weirdo lists that do fun stuff, Emperor’s Children can do just fine, as can the Traitor Legions book as a whole I think. While some of the legions are weaker than others and some of them do give you some odd incentives to use/not use certain units, none of them stand out as complete stinkers and all of them feel fairly on par with the rules that the loyalist chapters have.
I don’t think that the Emperor’s Children are the most powerful of the options that exist; their relics are arguably some of the weakest of the whole batch and they don’t do anything truly unique; they just shoot and assault a little bit harder than they did before the supplement. Many of the others are likely to see more use in a tournament sense, even if they aren’t successful- the +3″ move/run/charge relic for World Eaters is quite powerful, Black Legion’s ability to bring down reserves on the first turn is a big deal with the Raptor Talon and other formations, Word Bearers harnessing for Maelific spells on a 3+ makes them perhaps the second- or third-best summoners in the game, etc, etc. On the other hand, I think that the Emperor’s Children bonuses, like those of the Iron Hands, are easy to underestimate and can turn a battle in subtle ways that many players won’t take proper notice of- planting a Meltabomb on that Knight even after he kills you with his D-sword is no small feature, and anytime you can get a bonus roll to shrug off wounds is a good thing. But their abilities, relevant as they are, are not going to make them kings of the game and I don’t really see any realistic chances of them winning a big tournament in the near future.
The Traitor Legions book is a solid supplement to the game- it adds some very usable content with interesting rules and formations for the various legions as well as some unique customization options for them. While it’s not perfect, outside of competitive play it puts Chaos Marines fairly on par with their counterparts on the Imperial side of things and gives all of the heretical players a bunch of neat toys to play with. The only real downside is that it isn’t an actual update to the CSM book itself- the overpriced units are still by and large overpriced, the stupid and cumbersome rules remain stupid and cumbersome. It would’ve been nice to see some some updates to the most problematical of units and rules just as a stopgap fix, but that doesn’t seem to be the way GW works these days.