Monday 17 June 2024

Faufreluches: O Sister, where art thou?

The eye-catching, vaguely-uncharitable and banally-provocative title of this post being something like 'Your Sisters of Battle suck - HERE is why!'

The Sisters of Battle - the Adepta Soriatas - are one of the more characteristic factions within Warhammer 40,000. A militant order of space nuns, zealous enforcers of the Imperial Creed, simultaneously the strong right arm of the Ecclesiarchy and those who once purged its overlord. 40k being the size it is, they seem to have leaked over into other properties, influencing things in the same fashion as the wider Warhammer look and approach did. I doubt, for one, that the Vestal of Darkest Dungeon (ostensibly more of a piece with Warhammer Fantasy) has quite such a confrontational look without the Sisters of Battle.

Behold, said Vestal.

This extends, of course, to other GW properties - Mordenheim's Sisters of Sigmar appear after the introduction of the Sisters of Battle, and serve as a localised fantasy pastiche of their Far-Future predecessors. I don't mean to suggest that the Sisters of Battle are somehow unique, mind you. They stake out a corner of the ground within which lies Paladin Girl. Indeed, they aren't even the only Pulpy Battle Nun creation of the 1990s. Other forerunners are the Fish Speakers of the later Dune books and the Vestal Vampires of Termight in Nemesis the Warlock.

Of course, the icon of the 41st Millennium is (for better or worse) that horrifying merger of rifleman, astronaut and templar, the Space Marine. The Sisters were left rather adrift for many years. No new models, no new rules, far few books. Yet they kept making an appearance, and it's difficult to imagine the Grim Darkness of the Far Future without them. 

But, while you may have an image of a Sister of Battle in your mind right now - and it may be a detailed and characterful image - it may well be the only image. Further: how many of their characters can you name? How many can you tell apart? Certainly, the various fan projects, art and discussions one encounters (that is, those trying to not to drift too far from the canon...) seem to stick to a fairly narrow stereotype. Even if their miniatures line may have been expanded, I would suggest that we don't have enough models of the Sisters.

Nothing but Joans of Arc, as far as the eye can see.

Why is this? Well, we might point to the mantle of zealous enforcers given to the Sisters. If they are in that role for (quote) 'the cruellest and most bloody regime imaginable' it should be no surprise that they are rigid and unvarying. Further, the Ecclesiarchy has more obvious centralising, uniform cultural tendencies that other Imperial factions - both as a matter of in-universe lore and in the wider parodic-satiric aspects it bears. (This overview of an old Sisters codex rather concludes that the Ecclesiarchy-themes and material rather dominate any separate identity the Sisters might have.)

The answer of 'Misogyny' is a little pat, but not necessarily untrue. I don't have the background or knowledge base to properly consider that, but I'd feel foolish not mentioning it. 

There's another aspect, which requires a bit of explaining. I'm going to propose three types of variation for a group principally portrayed as tabletop miniatures, as the Sisters. 

  • Football-Strip Variation
  • Plurality Variation
  • Top-to-bottom - or, more aptly - Cap-à-Pie Variation
Football-Strip Variation is easily explained. Different paint schemes, as developed by individual modellers or suggested by the publishers of the model line. This can even by facilitated by things like transfers with different symbols on.

Plurality Variation is where many but not a majority of elements of the model - and the character represented - are changed. A distinct likeness to the original remains. A sub-faction would be well-represented by this, but a sub-faction can exist with only a few additional models being Plurality-Varied. Both individual modellers or the publishers of the model line could create this.

Cap-à-Pie Variation is top-to-bottom transformation. If we are producing a Chapter of Inca-inspired Space Marines, there will be significant sculpting to add Incan details to their armour. This is really something only individual modellers could do: if the publishers of the model line do this, then the something new has like as not been created. Grey Knights are no longer Space Marines. (Shut up, you know what I mean.) 

All these forms of variation can be seen on (say) fan art as well as in modelling. 

(Incidentally, if a passing semiotician or theorist of aesthetics wants to tell me that there are existing terms for all this, I'd love to hear them.)

Football-Strip Variation is always very likely. A different colour scheme is a simple process. Likewise, I think that there will always be a sprinkling of people who want to go all in on customisation and will produce Cap-à-Pie Variation. 

But I think that Plurality Variation is harder to produce, and is more important for producing a broad range of images for a given line of models. Smith painting Space Marines teal and burnt umber is just teal-and-umber Space Marines. Smith painstakingly converting Samurai Orks or Tau using Necron weapons is just Smith's Samurai Orks. There's a certain point between the two necessary for breadth.

Hence, for instance, the Space Marines. This portion of an interview with Gav Thorpe details the core theme of four Chapters who received Plurality Variation - who could then be taken as a model of (EG) the Unorthodox going forward.

And this ties into something greater. Let's go over some Imperial factions. 

  • Our Plurality Variations of Space Marines are those of Warriors - Vikings, Mongols, Arthurian Knights, Plains Indians. Easy to gasp, easy to add to.

(If you encounter a Plurality or Cap-à-Pie Variation which is very clearly drawing from 20th or 21st century military looks, then it's almost certainly resting on 'Special Forces imagery' - which hits the individual and self-directed elements of the Warrior concept . Cf. The various remarkably code-named characters of Metal Gear Solid, et al.)

  • Similarly, our Plurality Variations of the Imperial Guard are Soldiers - generic Western NATO types, the Red Army of WWII, Desert Rats, Redcoats, a deliberate mix of everyone in the Vietnam War (except the French). 
  • Inquisitors and their followers are, as discussed elsewhere, to some degree professional PCs. Variation is in-built. 
  • The tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus are relatively new to having their own faction. But we have multiple instances of characterful, varied tech-priests over the years. They are, to put not too fine a point on it, Nerds (their basic Skitarii infantry are even goggle-eyed and stick-limbed!) and Mad Scientists of which there are variations a-plenty. A whole cult of Victor Frankensteins.

But when it comes to the Sisters - there, we falter. A majority of players/fans/[other] can't provide Plurality Variations of clergy. Our images of religious life are far too limited.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself 'I can imagine all sorts of priests and monks! Haughty Bishops, serene Buddhist monks, Hellenic pagans reading the entrails, ranting Televangelists, mild Vicars, knowing melancholic Rabbis, gold-sickled druids, Hindu ascetics...' 
    Or, for that matter 'I can conjure up a Sister with inner doubts, a Sister who is hiding a bitter loss, a Sister who rejoices in slaughter, a Sister who is enthusiastic about a particular period of poetry....'

This doesn't quite work, of course. The former is far too broad for Plurality Variation; the latter is perfectly good, but off the peg rather than tailored to fit. Compare the proposed Dwarves in Paras 4-6 here. It also runs the risk of the wrong emphasis: consider those adaptations of Chesterton's Father Brown that make him a detective who sometimes says a Mass, rather than a Priest who solves crimes.

I recognise that this is not a new complaint. Neal Stephenson was writing about a lack of religious knowledge and empathy in the aftermath of the Waco siege in the essay 'Blind Secularism'. Less loftily, my praise for Fading Suns had some of this in it. But I will maintain it all the same.

"That's some lovely Polymorphonic Carbon there, be a shame is something happened to it."
Image found in this article on Emperor of the Fading Suns.

[Incidentally, what would this a comparable Plurality Variation look like for Sisters? Well, to point to the Imperial Guard, we have standard khaki-and-rifles army men, scrappy irregulars, heavy-coated gas-masked trenchfighters, troopers for various environments and troopers in dress uniforms.  One would seek at least this level of visual difference, whatever the extent of different characterisation.

Thus, we might suggest Sisters in very plain, functional wargear. Perhaps this Order frequently serves as missionaries, cut off from the normal supply lines. Their devotion to the Emperor is that of loyal servants: ornament and honour is reserved for the altars and reliquaries.

(This is, to be clear, an outline of a sort of order, that a player can tailor closer to fit their preferences. And, of course, they likely aren't only missionaries.)

An obvious contrast is found with a highly ornamental Order, dripping with devotional iconography and decorative elements, drawing heavily on the familiar work of John Blanche. There may be a sense of affective piety among them, stressing a sense of emotional connection to the Emperor - and a willingness to endure his pains. Cue the hairshirt, and other forms of mortification of the flesh. Conspicuous piety of this kind makes them a natural fit for the centre rather than the fringes of the Imperium.

There is also the Sister as enforcer and observer - a Praetorian Guard at the side of a Cardinal, as ready to defend them as to purge them. There's a stress on formality, purity and observation. Think of them drawing from the iconography of the black-and white wimpled and veiled nun - and the black-suited white-shirted secret service agent. Starched white veils concealing high-tech surveillance gear. Gleaming bolter muzzles peaking from under broad black cloaks.

Finally, we might consider an image of the witchfinder. An up-armoured, imposing figure, with exotic weaponry - to both even the odds against the rogue Psyker and, possibly, to take them alive. We might see touches of the SWAT team in them. The inclusion of some in Capotain 'Puritan' hats would be a familiar touch; some of the ferocious elements in the design of the Sisters of Silence might also be apt.

Missionary, Celebrant, Enforcer, Witchfinder. Two outward-facing, two inward. Two plainer, two ornamented. One practical, one passionate, one reserved, one pugnacious. Perhaps this works.]

All very well, though it's unlikely that Games Workshop will come knocking at my door any time soon. So how do I apply all this in my own feudal future  - faufreluchaen* - setting?


Quote:  The Regent knew that Mankind was Changing. The Pastorate are there to make sure that Mankind knows it too. Teachers, counsellors, ritualists - bearers of the vision for all mankind.

As that suggests, the Regent isn't quite viewed as a deity. But a mediator? A prophet? An intercessor? Well, he's managed to be all of those things. Then panegyrics of his own life - and half-life - positioned him as a tool of destiny - undeniably blessed - chosen by chance, by fate - by the universe - by existence itself. This isn't damnable, or even strictly wrongheaded. It may be a misconception, but the Pastorate would rather work with misconceptions that not work at all. 

Established terminology: Ministers as the base representative of the Pastorate, headquartered in temples. Training to occur in seminaries. Witchfinders ('The Office of Detection') and Wardens are among the Pastorate's paramilitary arms. Arch-Pastors to oversee large cities (and their hinterlands), Metropolites to oversee star systems. Typically 'black-clad'. The name of the Regent is repeated once a terrestrial year in the ceremony of the Perennial Obituary

So far, so loosely sketched. How do we draw this out into Plurality Variation? 

Well, as Fading Suns, we might have sects still roughly bound together. We should avoid, however, an idea of castes or specialised departments. What we have are circles and networks. Ministers and Pastorate officials align into informal groups - which harden into societies - which put their members to work - which develop talents and specialities - which grow in influence and dominance over a certain discipline, or a certain province, or a certain system. 

It would be very rare for every minister on a fully-settled planet to be of one Circle. It would not be rare for Nine out of Ten Senior Ministers, Arch-Pastors, Seminary Heads or Provincial Pastorate Clarks (PPCs) to be of a Circle.
    It's not quite like being a member of a monastic order (though of course certain Ministers may take certain life-long vows and gather into communities governed by a certain rule), or a political party (though of course Ministers can play politics), or a social clique (though naturally Ministers have a social life). But it's not not like those things.

Time for some examples. 

The Journeying Circle - Have their roots in travelling Ministers, of the first days of the Pastorate. They are no longer mendicants, but continue to use the iconography of travel. This covers devotional literature, rhetoric, art and dress - wide-brimmed hats, robust boots, clothing cut to accommodate space suits even if they never leave their planet. 

They make significant efforts to unearth Psychics, and when they find them spend a lot of time minutely recording their actions within isolated, specially prepared cloisters. 

Their advice and instruction focuses on the constant effort to move forward and develop.

Journeying Circle institutions include the Pilgrims' Sodality, the Geofric Monks, the Seven-Path Trust and the Saiph Sector Pastorate Journal and Record.

The Lector Circle - Prioritise teaching and knowledge, in both the Circle's own lodges and in public libraries. Keen educators, omnivorous readers - irritating know-it-alls, inflexible disciplinarians. A notable mark of a Circle member is the wide lattice-patterned collar; some may carry the flat 'scribe's satchel'. Many will carry the flat square string of Mnemonic beads; each bead is set with a series of Lectorine shorthand marks that allow the carrier to readily recall a long block of text.

They focus both on teaching themselves, on enabling teaching, and on regulating what is and isn't taught.   

Their advice might typically focus on programmes of study and specialist instructors. 

Lector Circle institutions include the Agatho Development Commission, the House of Learned Repose and the Amaranth Echelon.

The Beacon and Banner Circle - can be directly traced to a Minister of the world Bagdemagus, Belisar. He is now 'Celebrated Belisar' in the Pastorate's Glyptotheque of Notables, where slabs of the native rock of their home worlds bear the names and great deeds of those the Pastorate considers the best of humanity. Belisar was chronicler and companion to the Paladin Chrysogon. The Beacon and Banner Circle follow his example, tracking the Paladins that emerge from the Massif, cultivating ties with the Maiors and recording the words and deeds of Paladins past and present.

If not actively tracking a Paladin or agent of the Palace, they will hold revivalist meetings, focussing audiences on their bonds to distant Terra.  Psychics they encounter are left to roam freely, though they are constantly watched. 

Their advice deals often with exemplars or inspirational narratives. 

Beacon and Banner institutions include the Guild of Esoteric Methods, the Yeomen's Benevolence Society, the Rifle-Sisters of Rigel and the College of Celb. Mavrasar.


That's likely enough to give some flavour of what could be apt. The comparison with the Sisters of Battle is loose, I know, but it struck me as a worthwhile exercise all the same. The Circles described above are a bit squishy - but it offers opportunities to focus in on a specific example, which can then be backed by the wider body.

*Semiurge's work is generally good; it is especially nice when it is inspired by my own work!


  1. Adrian Tchaikovsky has a great take on this in his Final Architecture space opera series. The Parthenon are warrior nuns ... in space ... and they're clones!

    1. Not read much Tchaikovsky. A little difficult for me to object to them lacking Variation!

  2. Some ideas for Sisters of Battle variation:
    -Sisters of Battle wearing power armour that makes them look like iron maidens with arms and legs - perhaps penitents, perhaps inflicting penance on others, perhaps a bit of both - or maybe the Sisters' equivalent of dreadnoughts - a toothless crone grinning within a 30 ton spiked battlemech/life support system
    -Syncretic Sisters of Battle, taking visual cues from Santeria and suchlike, high-value converts like psychics from planets that aren't totally orthodox to the imperial cult
    -Valkyrie-like, hover-halo'd, inject nanites or emergency cyber-surgeries on fallen soldiers to get them back up and fighting
    -Lady Godiva hairshirted, nanowire implant-wigs (weaves?) wrapped into outfits, whipped out to eviscerate and decapitate
    -Kuroko - kabuki theatre stagehands dressed all in black and veils, inspired modern depictions of ninjas - black ops for missions that could compromise the ends of the Ecclesia

    1. Syncretic Sisters sound like exactly what's needed. Like the Orthodox/Unorthodox/Flawed/Flawed model Thorpe mentions.