BoLS logo Tabletop, RPGs & Pop Culture

40K Op-ed: The Keyword System Is Broken, Already

5 Minute Read
May 2 2019

The once simple keyword system is having issues.

Keywords were one of the significant changes added to the game in 8th Edition. First tested in Age of Sigmar, they were supposed to help simplify the game and rules, and in some ways replace USRs. However, less than two years into the edition we already see some big issues with the system. Today I want to take a look at three times the keyword system has failed.

Keyword Basics

Keywords were part of the promise to make 8th a more straightforward and more accessible game. At the most basic they are a collection of words that describe each unit. They are broken into two categories: Faction Keywords and regular Keywords. Faction Keywords help you to determine what units can be in any given army and include broad categories like Imperium, and more specific ones like Blood Angels. Outside of this keywords are generally used to determine what battlefield effect affect a unit, such as auras and stratagems. Finally, some keywords have specific rules tied to them – like fly and vehicle.

This should be a pretty easy system. In particular, it seems an easy way to tell if something can affect a unit. You need to simply look at what keywords can be affected and see if the ones on the unit’s datasheet match. Simple and easy. However, that system and the ease of use it promised are having some issues. Let’s look at three ways in which it’s failed.

Daemon Stratagems

When the Chaos Daemon Codex came out players instantly noticed something in it. The vast majority of stratagems in the book could be used to target units with the Daemon keyword. Players also noticed that several units form other Chaos books, had the Daemon keyword. Putting two and two together people were soon exciting with the prospect of using Daemon stratagems to do things like deep strike Mortarion, or Goatboy’s beloved Lord of Skulls. After all the stratagems targeted Daemon and these units had the Daemon keyword, should work.

And it did for a little while. However, GW soon realized this was not only a little overpowered, but I guess I went against how they intended things to work.  A FAQ soon came out stating the Daemon stratagems could only target units with Daemon faction keyword, and not just units with the regular Daemon keywordOn the one hand, fair enough, it was overpowered and most likely not intended. Its also not that hard to keep track of once you know the ruling.


On the other hand, it’s a little nonsensical and not how anything else works. Is Mortarion a damon or not? Why can Daemons Princes from Codex Daemons use the stratagems, but not Daemon Princes from Codex Chaos Space Marines? And why don’t other effects work this way? Mortarion can, for instance, benefit from a Herald of Nurgle’s aura effect. This is due to him being a Nurgle Daemon. He can be targeted by Nurgle Daemon psychic powers, so why not (balance aside) stratagems? It also adds an extra rule you have to be aware of. Still, this wasn’t the biggest issue.

Brood Brothers

The new Genestealer Cult Codex contains rules for taking an allied Astra Militarium detachment as Brood Brothers. These rules are byzantine and also break the keyword system. The core of the issue is the Brood Brothers keyword. All the units in the Astra Militarium army replaced their <regiment> keyword with Brood Brothers. In addition, if they did not have the <regiment> keyword they simply gained the Brood Brother keyword. While oddly worded the intent seemed clear, in essence, Brood Brothers was the unit’s regiment, just like Catachan would be in a normal army.

The issue that came up had to do with Astra Militarium Orders. Normally units that can issue order can issue them to any friendly <regiment> unit of the right type. In this case, officers could issue them to any friendly Brood Brothers unit of the right type. That part worked. However, this also allowed officers to give orders to units that would not normally have been able to get orders, such as Orgyns, as well as Brood Brothers from Codex Genestealer Cults. This happened because ALL these units had the same keyword, Brood Brothers. 

To fix this GW had to put out an FAQ saying first that units with the Genestealer Cult faction keyword can’t be given orders, and that any units that couldn’t normally be given orders still can’t. While this again makes sense from a for a balance stand point, it still breaks the keyword rules. Those units HAVE The keyword. So at this point, you have to not only know what keywords the units have, but how they got that keyword and what, if anything it replaced, as well as what other keywords the units have. It’s no longer as simple as matching the keyword you can target to the keyword the unit has.



The third example is the new Ynnari rules. One of the issues people had with Ynnari in the past is that since they were an army of mixed factions, they could be affected by stratagems and physic powers from other armies. The most classic would be Ynnari Dark Reapers gain guide from Eldar and then using the Fire and Fade stratagem. Well no longer! The new rules simply state that stratagems and psychic powers from the Drukhari, Harlequin and Craftworlds books cannot affect Ynnari units, even if they have the right keywords. (Auras will still work.) This is once again a choice made to balance the game that breaks the rules of keywords and makes things more complicated.

Final Thoughts

So there you have three instances where the keyword system has failed to work as it should. All of these are exceptions to the rule, and big ones. They were all made in order to balance the game and rein in abuses, but are still bending the fundamental promise of the keyword system. All of these are also of course tied to taking allies. At the end of the day, while still functional in places the keyword system, thanks to how it’s been used, it just not the simple, easy system it once was. Less than 2 years in, its already a patched together rule, held up by FAQs and Erratas.

Let us know how you think the keyword system is working, down in the comments! 

  • 40K: Funko POP! Collection Arriving In May