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In Games Workshop's tabletop wargaming setting Warhammer 40,000, the Dark Eldar are depicted as a faction of sadistic, piratical raiders with an affinity for torture and cruelty. They are a playable faction in Warhammer 40,000, supported by rules supplements and a miniatures range, and also appeared as a playable race in the video game Warhammer 40,000 Dawn of War - Soulstorm. They are closely related to the other Eldar factions in the fiction; the Craftworld Eldar, the Harlequins and the Exodites, and share several of their characteristics. They also bear some stylistic similarities to the Dark Elves of the Warhammer Fantasy Battles setting.
Tapletop game mechanics
In the context of the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game, the Dark Eldar are an exceptionally rapid, mobile army. They make use of anti-grav skimmer vehicles to transport their units around the tabletop without behind hindered by intervening terrain, and these vehicles are some of the fastest of their class in the game. Dark Eldar units typically have much higher initiative statistics than the majority of other Warhammer 40,000 armies, allowing them to attack first in the close-combat phases of the game. They also make extensive use of poisoned weapons, a game mechanic which allows the wielder to damage models with high toughness characteristics just as easily as they would a much weaker opponent.
There are some trade offs for these strengths; Dark Eldar units themselves are relatively weak and lightly armoured, succumbing to damage more easily than many other forces. The Dark Eldar rely on removing enemy models with their quickness of attacks before their opponents have a chance to react, and the use of cover to help protect their lightly armoured troops.
The Dark Eldar are one of the only armies in the game not to make use of their own Psykers, but they do have a few options in their Codex which can disrupt enemy psykers. It is also possible for them to bring psykers to the battle by allying with other factions; the Dark Eldar are considered "Battle Brothers" with models from the Eldar and Harlequin factions in the game, allowing units from these different forces to fight alongside each other without penalty.
Release & Development
The Dark Eldar are relative newcomers to the setting, with no direct reference to them in the original source material of the game. Their introduction to both the game and background fiction coincided with the release of the 3rd edition of Warhammer 40,000 in 1998, and their models featured in the game's new starter set alongside a Space Marine force. A full range of miniatures was made available, alongside a Codex Supplement containing rules for fielding a Dark Eldar army later in 1998. A revised addition of this book, featuring new content, was released in 2003 during the 4th Edition of Warhammer 40,000.
Following a statement that Rick Priestley made in White Dwarf 343 (US issue 342) saying, "I think it's time that the Dark Eldar, Space Wolves and a few others have their time in the spotlight again...", a new Codex for the 5th Edition of the game was released, accompanied by a redesigned miniatures range. Several of the previously metal models were replaced with new multi-part plastic kits and all the new models had a distinctive new visual style. Further release waves for the new range followed in March, June, August and September 2011. After these releases, only a single miniature (that of the special character Drazhar) remained in production from the original line of models.
The newest Codex was released in October 2014 as both a hardback book and ebook, and was one of the first Codexes released during the current (7th) edition of Warhammer 40,000, although it lacks some of the army building features which have become common in subsequent releases from this edition, such as formations. A small model wave was released at the same time, as well as a Codex Supplement book, Haemonculus Covens, allowing the player to field full armies made up of units related to the Haemonculi from the fiction and gaining particular in-game restrictions and benefits.
The Warhammer 40,000 expansion book 'Battle Missions', released in 2010 includes three scenarios designed specifically for Dark Eldar armies.
The Dark Eldar are one of four known factions of the Eldar race to have survived the fall of the old galaxy-spanning Eldar Empire. At the height of its power, the empire spanned millions of worlds and the Eldar race lived in relative peace, with many of the races of the galaxy as yet insufficiently evolved, advanced or numerous enough to challenge them. Labour and manufacturing needs were provided by sophisticated machines, allowing the Eldar to pursue their own aesthetic and artistic pursuits. This eventually led to a species-wide attitude of decadence and descent into hedonism. The formation of sects known as Pleasure Cults began, with the objective of reaching the highest levels of sensation, with ceremonies in their name devolving into violence and even the sacrifice of other Eldar.
During this time, the Eldar also discovered the Webway; a labyrinthine alternate dimension allowing faster than light travel between various points in the galaxy. Various outposts were founded in the Webway including the port-city of Commorragh. Its strategically important location in the webway and capacity to transport any fleet to any of the empire's most vital regions meant it was considered too valuable to belong to any one aspect of the empire. It was thus granted autonomy from the ruling Eldar councils, which in turn meant it stood outside the jurisdiction of those councils and became a haven for those with dark motives and a need to hide their deeds. Commorragh's isolation within the webway saw it become a bastion for the pleasure cults.
Many Eldar were disgusted with the lows their race had reached, and set off from their homeworlds to the uncorrupted Maiden Worlds, or aboard gigantic space-faring cities known as Craftworlds. These factions would eventually become the Exodites and the Craftworld Eldar, respectively. Meanwhile, something was stirring within the Warp, a parallel psychic dimension teeming with chaotic energies. The millennia of decadence of the Eldar Empire was giving shape to a new force in that psychic realm, which grew over thousands of years. In an instant, it sparked into life; Slaanesh was born. Known by the Eldar as "she who thirsts", a new Chaos God with an insatiable hunger for the souls of those that birthed it, the Eldar. The moment of Slaanesh's awakening unleashed a psychic shockwave that tore the soul from almost the entire Eldar race, leaving few survivors.
Among those survivors were the denizens of Commoragh, protected from the fury of Slaanesh's birth by their seclusion in the webway. Unrepentant of their old ways, these Eldar learned that slowly and surely, Slaanesh was claiming each of their souls. However, they discovered that they could rejuvenate themselves by absorbing the pain and torment of other souls; effectively cheating death and Slaanesh of its prize. If they could regularly claim souls, they effectively became immune to the passage of time. Soon, the Eldar of Commoragh began raiding the planets of realspace in search of captives and slaves with whom to rejuvenate their decaying souls, and thus were the Dark Eldar born.
The Dark Eldar are depicted by Games Workshop as a race that is sadistic in the extreme, reveling in piracy, enslavement and torture. Like all factions of the Eldar race, the Dark Eldar have access to technology that is extremely advanced by human standards. Players of Dark Eldar armies may select various anti-gravity vehicles such as Reaver Jetbikes, Raiders and Ravagers (one man bikes, troop transports, and mobile weapons platforms, respectively) to launch high-speed attacks. They strike with little or no warning, using an inter-dimensional labyrinth known as the Webway to traverse the galaxy safely and far more quickly than most races are able to with their Warp jumps.
The Dark Eldar are unique amongst the Warhammer 40,000 factions in the sense that they do not occupy one or more planets, but rather one city, Commorragh. Commorragh has always been portrayed as a colossal city within the Webway, and in November 2010 it was described to be in actuality an amalgamation of several cities and realms located within the Webway, having started as a single port but since Vect's overthrow of the old houses had grown to amalgamate these new territories such as Shaa-dom and Iron Thorn.
Dark Eldar are mainly depicted as a piratical race with no loyalty to anyone except themselves, though they are reportedly sometimes employed by various races as mercenaries. When describing the raids of the Dark Eldar, Games Workshop literature has always focused on the capturing of slaves, which appear to be the main currency of Commorragh.
The Dark Eldar have technology far advanced beyond those of other species. They make use of technology, including anti-gravity devices, splinter weapons, dark matter (in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, something more akin to antimatter) weaponry, nanotechnology and psychic artifacts. While Dark Eldar do make use of psychic devices, they do not use psychic powers themselves: psykers could be tracked down by Slaanesh (one of the Chaos gods), who seeks to destroy Commorragh. Thus, the use of psychic powers is strictly forbidden in Commorragh. In the back story released in the most recent Dark Eldar Codex, it is revealed that the Dark Eldar gradually lost their natural psychic ability during the millennia following the Fall of the Eldar race, and that their souls, which are slowly drained by Slaanesh, are sustained only through the absorption of the psychic power released by pain, torture and anguish of other sentient beings.
Guides on how to paint Dark Eldar feature in the following books/magazines...
- Raiders of Commorragh (2014).
- How to paint citadel miniatures (2012). It features a 'Army Project' with lengthy guides using the new citadel colours released in 2012.
- White Dwarf issue . It has many techniques which include Dark Eldar Mandrakes and Kabalite Warriors.
- White Dwarf Issue . It has a guide on how to paint Wrack Skin
- White Dwarf Issue . It has a guide on how to paint their armour
Kabals and Wych cults
After Asdrubael Vect destroyed the Old Order in the Dark City, he introduced the Kabalite System, in which anyone who kills a Kabalite Warrior had better have influential friends, as the dead Warrior's entire Kabal will be after them for revenge. There is only one person who can wipe a Kabal out to the last Eldar without there being a revolt, and that is the Supreme Overlord of the Dark City, Asdrubael Vect himself. The wych cults are gladiatorial warriors who fight for the ecstasy they get from pain. As with any Dark Eldar, there is hierarchy within the cults. The wyches report to the hekatrix of the squad. The Hekatrii report to the cult's leader, the Succubus.
The Court of the Archon
The Court of the Archon is a squad of 1-12 bodyguards who accompany their Archon, and cannot be selected by players if they have not selected an Archon. This squad was introduced in the November 2010 release as a brand new addition.
- Archon - In Games Workshop literature, Archons are the masters of the Dark Eldar Kabals. They are masters of intrigue and extremely skilled warriors, with in-game statistics to reflect this.
- Lhamaean - In Dark Eldar society, Lhamaeans function as courtesans to a Kabal's Archon. Whilst they may be part of an Archon's harem, they are a sisterhood devoted to the study and use of poisons. In the game, they have highly poisonous weapons and enhance the efficiency of any poisoned weapons the Archon carries.
- Medusae - Depicted as Dark Eldar slaves possessed by extra-planar creatures whose bodies store emotions and sensations, Medusae are used by Archons to record the sensations of a battle, but in-game they have a special attack that uses a template to fire, much like a flamer.
- Sslyth - The Sslyth are a race not previously mentioned in Warhammer 40,000 literature until the introduction of the Dark Eldar Codex in 2010. They are described as a race of snake-people with four arms carrying a selection of weapons and function as bodyguards to the Archon.
- Dark Eldar Ur-Ghul - They are a sightless species whose sense of smell has become highly advanced. They may be compared to the Ghouls of fantasy armies and function as warriors biased towards close combat in the game.
The Rise of Asdrubael Vect
The Games Workshop official history of the Dark Eldar has always placed Asdrubael Vect as the supreme overlord of Commorragh and in the 2010 Codex release provided more detail as to his rise to power. Originally a slave in the time of the old noble houses, Vect rose to become the leader of an organisation he called the Kabal of the Black Heart. By engineering an Imperial invasion of the city, Vect was able to pick off his rivals, the Archons of the noble houses, while they fought to repel the invaders. In the power vacuum after the conflict, he was able to make his Kabal the most powerful in the city and he has ruled since, though not without various challenges.
- Johnson, J. Warhammer 40,000: Battle Missions, (Games Workshop Ltd, Nottingham: 2010), pp. 24-31
- Thorpe, Gav. "The Torturer's Tale". Games Workshop. Retrieved 2006-02-21.
- Johnson, Jervis; Thorpe, Gav (2003-11-30). Warhammer 40,000 Codex: Dark Eldar. Nottingham: Games Workshop. ISBN 978-1-84154-307-9.