1 Mar 2014

The Ripper Swarm Mystery

Howdy there folks! Learn2Eel here with a different kind of article today concerning a topic that is really bugging me lately, no doubt because I have been reviewing the codex this issue relates to. I am intrigued by the situation of Ripper Swarms - and Pyrovores, by extension - in the Tyranid model range. It is as if they are becoming increasingly pointless as each new codex is released. I am interested to see your thoughts on this topic, and I hope you enjoy the article!

The Ripper Swarm Mystery

Birth of a Swarm

My history with early Warhammer 40000 is a little sketchy as aside from a little look at it about 13 years ago, my personal experience with the 4th Edition and backwards is almost non-existent. However, if memory serves, Ripper Swarms were one of the first "Swarm" units in the game, predating Necron Scarab Swarms and Chaos Daemon Nurglings. Again, I may be wrong, but Rippers certainly are one of the earliest Swarm units. To get the idea of why Rippers were created, let us look at what a Swarm base does differently from regular infantry; a Swarm cannot be a scoring units, something that has persisted from at least 3rd Edition all the way up to the present day, they have multiple wounds as opposed to one - similar to a character - but have generally poorer stats to reflect that. They generally lack ranged weapons and fill the middle ground between elite infantry and standard infantry in terms of point cost. They are built to survive more small arms fire than regular infantry, but with the balance that they fear Instant Death weapons whereas a single wound model doesn't fear it more than any other weapon. Typically, a Swarm unit is Fearless and is built for combat as, generally, Instant Death weapons or those that inflict Instant Death through the 2x Strength over Toughness rule are found more commonly in shooting. As Fearless units, Swarms can hold up units in combat indefinitely by hiding behind their sheer number of wounds per model, though offensively they are lacking. They are what constitutes a "tarpit" unit and are likely one of the original derivatives of that moniker. Ultimately, the Ripper Swarms of the old editions did a better job of this as not only was combat the more preferred method of victory, but high Strength shooting could not be attained so easily or cheaply as it is nowadays. This is a product less of changes to Ripper Swarms themselves and more of the edition switches with new rulebooks. Generally speaking, Swarm units are less valuable than they used to be. However, in the case of Ripper Swarms, the decline is decidedly not because of the editions first, but of their own weakening rules - and the current rules for Scarab Swarms and Nurglings, who improved dramatically over their old incarnations, reflects this.

The Decline of Miniature Proportions

Now, let me preface this by saying that I do not have any personal experience with the in-game functionality of Ripper Swarms in any edition save from the 5th Edition codex and onwards. Their older incarnations are definitely as alien to me as the species itself is to the Imperium. However, just looking at my 3rd Edition Tyranid codex, I can see the value of Ripper Swarms in older incarnations. Compared to a Hormagaunt, a Ripper Swarm had an identical points cost for -1 Weapon Skill, +2 Wounds, -3 Initiative, +1 Attack and +5 Leadership just on their statline. Hormagaunts were very fast with a 12" charge range as opposed to the usual 6" charge range and they could run D6" in the shooting phase and ignore penalties for difficult terrain - the forerunner of Run moves. Rippers, on the other hand, were always Fearless but could not be the 3rd Edition equivalent of a scoring or denial unit, they suffered two wounds instead of one from templates and blast markers (as they do now) and they even had what is now Stealth. Now, I might be wrong as again I don't have any personal experience, but doesn't a Ripper Swarm seem pretty decent next to a Hormagaunt? They are similarly priced and have their own unique traits to distinguish themselves from one another without either being noticeably unbalanced or "weak". The 4th Edition codex saw very similar results, with the two big differences being that Rippers gained +1 Initiative while Hormagaunts were changed to Beasts - though no real changes actually came of it.

Enter the 5th Edition Tyranid codex where things started to take a downward turn for the worse. In 5th Edition, Rippers were 10 points a base as before, but the Mindless rule was changed so that they would now suffer automatic wounds when out of Synapse range based on a Leadership test - a stat that dropped from 10 to a dismal 5. They suffered -1 Weapon Skill and +1 attack as stat changes to rub salt in the wound. The Mindless rule alone was a big downgrade, but how did Hormagaunts change instead? Remembering that as each edition has passed, particularly from 4th Edition to 5th Edition, unit costs have generally gone down. Hormagaunts dropped a whopping 4 points a model down to 6 points a model, with changes as -1 Weapon Skill, +1 Initiative and replacing Beasts with Infantry. The change to Fleet and the addition of Bounding Leap meant that Hormagaunts still had similar threat ranges for assault, with a 6" move, a 3D6" choose the highest Run move, and then a 6" charge. Still, Hormagaunts may have also decreased in usefulness in this codex, but they nonetheless got significantly cheaper to reflect that. Rippers gained a pretty monumental drawback, a negative stat change overall and no points cost change. This was the point when Rippers started to really dwindle in usefulness. Enter the new 6th Edition Tyranid codex. While I won't quote exact costs or anything like that, Rippers lost the Mindless special rule and despite still being cost inefficient compared to Hormagaunts - that dropped in cost again - they went up in points per model, becoming even less useful than previously. The loss of the Mindless special rule saw the introduction of the Instinctive Behaviour equivalent anyway, so overall it was just a completely downward change for Ripper Swarms. As you can see, this is a unit that has managed to get worse from the 5th Edition codex, whose' Rippers were inferior to the 4th Edition incarnation.

Contrast to Contemporary Rivals

One of the first thoughts that popped into my head after reading the Ripper Swarm rules was that, well, maybe the rules designers don't really know how to balance a swarm unit. Instant Death is always going to be an issue for these units, as well as the incapability to capture objectives, so how do you properly price these when considering that small arms fire might be all that is directed against them in any given game? Well as it turns out this is most definitely not the case, as we can see with another 6th Edition codex, Chaos Daemons, and its swarm unit; Nurglings. I could compare and contrast to Canoptek Scarab Swarms, but as they originate in a 5th Edition codex I feel Nurglings are a more appropriate unit to discuss. So, let me explain why the rules designers can't hide behind the excuse that Swarm units are hard to balance as, clearly, we can see that modern examples do work. I will mention though that Scarab Swarms are pretty darn good in certain lists and have unique special rules to distinguish their usage in the Necron army.

The Stats

This is the first place any such comparison needs to start with, so let us get right into it. Rippers are Weapon Skill 2; Nurglings are Weapon Skill 3. Rippers are hit on 3s by Carnifexes and many other units, and require 5s to hit against Weapon Skill 5 or higher enemies; they additionally hit Tau units on 4s. Nurglings are hit on 4s by Carnifexes and many other units, and require 5s to hit against Weapon Skill 7 or higher enemies; they additionally hit Tau units on 3s. Rippers are Ballistic Skill 2; Nurglings are Ballistic Skill 3. Rippers hit on 5s with their shooting but can take twin-linked guns. Nurglings hit on 4s with their shooting but cannot take twin-linked guns (meaning that Nurglings are far superior for hiding behind an Aegis Defence Line with a Quad Gun). Both units are Strength and Toughness 3. Rippers have three wounds; Nurglings have four wounds, meaning Nurglings win out on survivability. Rippers are Initiative 2; Nurglings are Initiative 3. Rippers strike at the same time as Necrons, Tau and Orks, and strike after Imperial Guard. Nurglings strike before Necrons, Tau and Orks, and strike at the same time as Imperial Guard. Both units have four attacks. Rippers are Leadersip 5; Nurglings are Leadership 7. On stats alone, Nurglings win out pretty handily; they dish out the same amount of attacks but are more likely to actually hit against a lot of opponents, they are a better shooting unit when using emplaced weapons and they are tougher.

Winner - Nurglings

The Survivability

As Swarm units cannot capture objectives, have many wounds per individual model and are lacking offensively, their primary role is as a tarpit unit. Naturally, the more survivable a tarpit unit, the better it is. So, let us contrast and compare. We know that Rippers have three wounds at Toughness 3, while Nurglings have four wounds at Toughness 3. The extra wound counts for a lot here, as that is another wound to be lost before a Nurgling base dies. Rippers have a 6+ armour save, while Nurglings have a 5+ invulnerable save. A 6+ armour save will be ignored by almost any shooting attack of note, and even if faced by AP- wounds, a 6+ save is still terrible. A 5+ invulnerable save not only doubles the chances of actually passing a save, but it works against anything instead of being ignored almost 99% of the time. This means that Nurglings do not requite the use of cover to survive. Nurglings also have a special rule, Shrouding, which Rippers do not share. Shrouding gives a +2 cover save bonus to any cover save the Nurglings would usually have, or a 5+ cover save in the open. The latter doesn't matter due to the 5+ invulnerable save, but the former makes a big difference. Nurglings will have a 3+ cover save in most kinds of area terrain, and a 2+ cover save behind a defence line or in a ruin. For a melee tarpit unit this might seem trivial, but if you actually want your Swarm unit to survive and reach a combat for them to survive and do their job, those extra saves make a huge difference. Throw in defensive grenades due to being Daemons of Nurgle and Nurglings take this category with incredible ease.
Winner - Nurglings

The Mobility

While this arguably isn't the most important aspect of a tarpit unit depending on what they are protecting, it still bears mentioning. Rippers can purchase the Deep Strike special rule. Nurglings come stock with the Deep Strike special rule. Additionally, Nurglings can Infiltrate, something that is impossible for Rippers to match. Infiltrate not only gives Nurglings more options but, when combined with Shrouded, can make them incredibly cheap early game tarpits by holding up advancing elements, surrounding ground transports to prevent them moving up and generally just blocking movement lanes. Rippers cannot match this feat.
Winner - Nurglings

The Staying Power

The defining and namesake attribute of a tarpit unit is that they can engage in close combat with an enemy unit and prevent them from doing anything important. This is accomplished by using a cheap unit to tie up an expensive - or merely dangerous - unit for a few player or game turns. This affords the player employing a tarpit to focus on other threats first without needing to worry about a specific unit. So, how do they match up? Rippers are Fearless; Nurglings have Daemonic Instability. Now, Rippers might suffer from Instinctive Behaviour (Feed), but once they are in combat they will stay there indefinitely as Instinctive Behaviour only applies to unengaged units. Nurglings, however, need to be careful of losing combats.  Each time they lose a combat, they must take a Leadership test minus the combat resolution score they lost by and suffer that many wounds with no saves allowed. This reduces their value as a tarpit specifically, though Nurglings also will never lose control of themselves. It's a double whammy in that both have some pretty serious concerns, and while I feel that the superior stats of Nurglings do make up for their deficiency, Daemonic Instability is a big no-no for a tarpit unit.
Winner - Ripper Swarms
The Cost

So, we know now that Nurglings win in almost every category, with Rippers edging ahead on staying power due to their straight Fearless. Nurglings have better stats than Rippers, they are much harder to kill than Rippers based on their invulnerable save alone, they have more deployment options and can act as early game tarpits uniquely. Even with Daemonic Instability thrown in, it is reasonable to assume that the points difference between the two units would be significant. After all, Nurglings are ridiculously hard to kill against any shooting that doesn't Ignore Cover, and denying objectives by sitting on them against weak scoring units in combat such as Necron Warriors is something Rippers can't quite do. Unfortunately, Nurglings are a mere few points more per model than Rippers. Seriously. The unit that doesn't die when it is away from friendly units, the unit that can act completely independently, the unit that is on a staggeringly higher level of survivability, the unit that can Infiltrate and doesn't pay for Deep Strike, the unit that has better stats all around, is only more expensive by a few points. I have only one word to close out this section, as I feel my reaction should really be self explanatory; Why!? 
Winner - Nurglings

But let us be serious here for a moment. Nurglings are a Swarm unit that has their own little niche in the Chaos Daemon army list. They are cheap, they are very tough outside of Strength 6 melee attacks, they have an invulnerable save on a Swarm unit, they can Infiltrate and they can just generally be pests whether in combat or not because they are very difficult to be rid of. They are priced appropriately for this, even if they can't do too much outside of be a roadblock - but hey, isn't that what a Swarm unit is for? So what can Rippers do for a very similar cost? Unfortunately, they can be completely outdone by Termagants, Hormagaunts and Gargoyles who are built for the same tarpit purposes, can capture objectives and don't care about Strength 6 or higher weapons any more than they do Strength 5 weapons. Rippers don't get anything unique to distinguish themselves from these units and are just left there being over-costed and almost completely worthless. I have to ask the obvious question; how come Nurglings and Scarab Swarms get decent treatment, but Rippers are left in the corner as if they are the odd duck out?

Potential Causes

Now, we've already established that the changes between rulebooks have contributed to generally less competitive usage of Swarm units. They are more vulnerable than ever due to easily accessed heavy weapons and high Strength shooting, as well as the lower cost most units. The role of a tarpit is also decreasing in value with competitive melee units able to ignore Swarms altogether either through sheer mobility or unparalleled damage output, as well as the change that a unit cannot attempt to charge a vehicle it may not harm - meaning tarpits for Walkers no longer function. However, the rules for Ripper Swarms themselves are just generally lessening in value, even before an edition switch is considered. The 5th Edition variant gained the incredibly debilitating Mindless special rule, while the 6th Edition incarnation suffers from an equivalent rule through Instinctive Behaviour and increased in points cost to boot. No matter how this is spun, Ripper Swarms are not competitive units in any sense and, while they do have uses, are the rough equivalent of a "joke" unit. They are never seen in tournament lists for a reason, as they are decidedly inferior to other Troops choices that they must compete with. This is a product of lazy rules design, effectively shelving Ripper Swarms carelessly while focusing more on the other units. But why does this happen - and yes, we've seen it happen before with units such as Thousand Sons or even the current Pyrovores - and what purpose does it serve? The better the rules are for a unit or the more useful it is to a player, the more it will sell actual models. Games Workshop are a business, ultimately, and it makes good business sense to have good, usable rules for every unit they produce a model for.

So why do we see units like Rippers with bad rules? One popular theory is that they weaken the rules of older units and then make great rules for newer units or models that aren't selling well to try and boost short-term sales. I don't think this is the case though as it would still make more sense to have good rules for every model, as then even those older models would still sell while the new ones would naturally gain their traction over time. The theory is further disproved by units such as the Tau Razorshark and Sun Shark, the Chaos Space Marine Mutilators, Chaos Daemon Burning Chariot of Tzeentch and other new units having sub-par or even broken rules. While there is of course a Heldrake, Riptide and Wraithknight for each of those units, I still think it is a bit too uneven to really be called a trend. So let us eliminate that option and bury it for good. For Rippers in particular, it could be that the way they are bought typically is by them being free additions in Termagant and Hormagaunt kits. From a business perspective, I guess one could say that Games Workshop are charging you for the Ripper Swarms in each of those kits, but not giving you good rules for the Ripper Swarms themselves so that you would actively buy those kits, I guess? Again, I don't think that is the case as I don't see Games Workshop as a vampiric corporation that would pull something like that.

I honestly believe that it just comes down to the rules designers either not realizing that Swarms in general aren't as good as they think, particularly in the new Tau and Eldar dominated meta, or that Rippers are a unit they don't really care about to notice or address their issues. While the community notices the problems with units like Rippers and Pyrovores, Games Workshop rules designers and play-testers may not notice any deficiencies, for all we know. We don't see how their designing and testing process works, so we have no idea how they come to the conclusion that any given unit has justifiable rules. We know Warhammer 40000 is not a balanced game and the first 6th Edition codex signaled that with the bonkers Heldrake and the poor Mutilators. But do the rules designers know that? Perhaps Games Workshop could benefit from being a bit more transparent about this process, and maybe even indulge community interaction with all kinds of players, from top level tournament players such as Reecius from Frontline Gaming (they have a great website going!) to JY2 over on Dakka Dakka (my personal recommendation for best competitive gaming 40K forum), or even your average gamer such as myself or our friends over on Bell of Lost Souls (my home away from home!). The community has a lot of great ideas as they have the benefit of significantly more minds than just a small rules design or rules testing team.

If Games Workshop really wants to spark their sales for old and new kits - particularly something like Tyranid Warriors - they could benefit hugely from a redesign of the rule-set, or at least many codices, to promote balance and fun. Ultimately, while Games Workshop have stated numerously that they are aimed more at hobbyists than competitive games, having a rule-set that is balanced at all levels of play would be a far more advantageous outcome. Themed army lists like Thousand Sons or Tau Auxiliaries shouldn't be sitting in the gutter waiting for another new codex, they should be embraced and allowed to compete at all levels without compromising on theme and background. Sure, adding limitations to those army lists might make sense, but that should be left to each individual hobbyist so that they can make the list that they want instead of having to look at alternate options for representation. Thousand Sons should be seen as a Chaos Space Marine build, not as a Grey Knights build, but as it is, the latter codex represents them so much better - even from a fluff perspective. Now, while I've managed to go off on a tangent in an article focused on Ripper Swarms, I feel it is as valid to the discussion as the weaknesses of Rippers themselves. Ripper Swarms are a unit that should at least have their potential uses in competitive lists, not be left aside for less competitive gaming. They need rules to reflect that they are little terrors, not these pathetic mindless beasts they have devolved into.

Can Sky Slashers redeem Games Workshop by being a decent Ripper Swarm equivalent?


And that's a wrap folks! I hope you enjoyed this article, and I really am interested to get some input on this topic. I haven't been following Tyranids for the entire time that they have been around - particularly due to my young age and a 10 year hobby hiatus - but this is nonetheless a situation that makes me decidedly uncomfortable. Please, share your thoughts here or over on +Bell of Lost Souls. Eel out.

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