Friday, February 21, 2014

Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon


Descent of Angels is another volume in the long running 'The Horus Heresy" taking place in the early years of the Warhammer 40K setting. The book to me, for about 90% of it, feels very complete and very done in one. Mitchel Scanlon does a solid job of bringing the various cast and characters to life by having a focus on one of the youths of the setting who sees his world transformed and then his own life transformed.

The military chapter that comes into play here, The Dark Angels, are lead by Lion El'Jonson but this is a tale from before he actually lead them. Rather, it starts off on Caliban, a so called 'death world' where survival is difficult. I found the writing good enough to drag me into a sense of wonder where the characters are part of a near medieval system but are using ancient technology such as old school bolters and swords and unaware, for certain at least, if there is actually a Terra.

The main character, Zahariel , is growing up in this world and is not alone. His cousin, so close they are like brothers, Nemiel, are in a state of constant one ups man ship. Almost a mirror for the activities of the Lion and his second in command, Luther. The constant state of competition, of almost being equals, shows its strain many times but the problem in this book, is it never comes to a head.

The book ends in a sort of "and then stuff happened" which leaves that aspect of it unsatisfying. For me at least, the rest of the book was well written. There is a lot of action and the nods to what is going to happen as part are told in a historical fashion as opposed to the character moments.

I'll be discussion some specifics of the book below so if you'd rather not have any more specific spoilers, read no further.

1. Rivals: One of the things that's supposed to be 'tragic' about the whole of the Horus Heresy is how Horus turned against the Emperor and how brother fought brother. Here we see just a taste of that between the Lion and Luther and Zahariel and his cousin Nemiel. Having characters in the setting that the players don't directly fight against provides them ties to the setting that don't necessarily have to do with killing something. But how can you bring such a rivalry out?

1a. Games of Skill outside combat: Zahariel and Nemiel train against each other many times. While you could have the characters actually fight, don't forget there are other forms of competition. For example, in shooting or throwing weapons, the characters probably aren't going to be doing such against each other, but against targets.

1b. Kill Count: Just because the characters are all in the same setting, doesn't mean that the player's character goes out on the same missions as the NPC. For example, the player may hear what a great job his rival did and how many spawns of chaos were put down under his rival's sword.

1c. Advantage: Rivals may seek out an advantage over each other. In this case, Zahariel has an innate advance in that he has 'terror vision' or something of that nature and is a potential psyker which is a powerful ability in the Warhammer 40K setting.

2. Embrace Change: In Shadow World, a setting for use with the Rolemaster system, the Shadow World setting itself is merely one planet in the grand scope of the much larger Space Master setting. While there were several times I was tempted to drag the players into Space Master and more specifically Dark Space, I held off on it, but I could have done it and it would have fit the setting. Here, the characters go from an almost backwater planet to fighting among the stars. Roll with the changes when they make sense.

3. Have an Endpoint: One of the things that Mitchel Scalon didn't do well in my opinion, is have a good stopping point. If possible, have a number of end games in mind so that if something happens and the campaign can't continue to run or players drop or you need to switch games, that you can do so at an 'organic' place in the campaign where it feels logical to do so.

Descent of Angels is available from Amazon in paperback for $8.09 in paperback and is prime eligible. As with many of the Black Library books, there is no kindle version available but an electronic version is available from the Black Library directly.