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Horus Heresy: How to Build a Narrative Army

10 Minute Read
Mar 2 2023
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This author is in the firm belief that Horus Heresy is the best GW product bar none because of 2 things: 

  • The die hard community that loves this particular era of Warhammer.
  • The interest in which people generally have in building narrative and thematic armies to immerse themselves in the lore and mechanics of the game. 

As a fluff bunny at heart, the most fun I’ve had at the gaming table has been Horus Heresy.  That’s not to say that lists must be toothless or that we should be counting buttons but I enjoy the game best when immersion is front an center.  As the holidays are well behind us and eyes are turning toward those piles of shame laying untouched in closets and on work benches, lets talk about what it takes to brainstorm, design and build/paint your “New Year, New Army” in the Horus Heresy universe.


John “Hannibal” Smith said it best, “I love it when a plan comes together.”  You’re going to want to do some extensive planning if you’re starting from the ground up on your new army.  This should help you grow your force over a few months with a theme in mind.  Lets take a look at some considerations:



This is arguably one of the most fun parts for me.  I generally start looking for lore examples of armies or I latch onto pictures or paint recipes that take me in a direction of a force that I want to build.  I don’t go as far as making an inspiration board like my wife and her girlfriends did for our wedding but I usually do myself a favor and start saving pictures, tutorials, lore excerpts or other pieces of information that help me formulate a look and feel for my army.  I’ll setup an album on my phone and just take screen captures or save images as I find them and tuck them away for later.  Since I am more hobby focused I start with something that offers me a new painting challenge or a place to try a new technique or I just see something that is visually interesting.  I also have access to all the HH 1.0 black books so I often to go them for artwork, deployment lists and campaign information.  Unlike Warhammer 40k where we have a Codex Astartes that spells out how most space marine chapters display their unit markings and heraldry, in HH you have far more leeway.  Use the lore as a framework, there aren’t many rules here to restrict you.  Get that transfer sheet and go to town.

In contrast Dan typically starts with models that he loves and builds forces around them.  Since he is a Dark Angel fan boy there was no question as to which faction he was going to choose only how he was going to play the faction.  Dan’s large Dark Angel army is built around available FW character models and the Escaton’s Imperative ROW.  Monji on the other hand is a Lore aficionado and delves heavily into Horus Heresy novels and art references  found in the “Visions of Heresy” art book.  He then generally will latch onto a scene from one of these books or a certain picture and start extrapolating from there.

I don’t think there is a right way or wrong way to be inspired and as each of us have varying interests within the hobby itself draw inspiration from the sources you enjoy.



Another thing you want to think about as you’re plotting and planning your army is what era in the heresy are you going to build into?  Are you thinking about about a force that is around near the start of the Great Crusade before primarchs were found and affiliated to their chapters; are Dusk Raiders or Luna Wolves an option?  Are you building something closer to the start of the heresy?  If so how will that impact the look and feel of the legion?  Is this a newer force of adepts or are you throwing in more veteran pieces that might have battle damage and significant wear from nearly 2 centuries of crusading?  Finally, are you thinking late Heresy where the Imperium has been at civil war for years and many legions are battered and scavenging whatever weapons and armor they can find?  If you’re building traitors how much corruption of chaos has taken hold, what will that look like; are we talking Nurgle growths or Khorne spikes?  Will that show on their models and units or are they generally unafflicted?

These are all viable questions that I will ask myself as I start piecing together the overall feel and look of my army.  I do always keep practicality in the back of my mind, and I try to not let my ambition overwhelm my time or guide me into aspects of army building that I generally don’t enjoy.  I’m not a huge fan of horde armies for instance, painting 200 Guardsmen sounds awful to me…but it might be your jam.  Converting every marine, though awesome, is something I generally am not going to find appealing short of doing a couple squads here and there.  As a veteran player I know my limitations and I know what I am willing to accomplish and not willing to accomplish.  Be realistic about your time, your ability and your motivation.  If this is a passion project and money is no object and you feel like this is going to be a life long hobby maybe a commission is your best bet.

Unit Selection

I’m not here to tell you how to have fun in your hobby.  I will say this.  If you’re building a narrative list its okay to take units that are suboptimal or even bad.   As Heresy players we often times know exactly what armies and Rites of War are S, A, B, C, D tier.  The meta in HH traditionally has changed slowly, if you want to build a cutthroat hard as nails list, you don’t have to look far to find what is effective right now.  A frolick through some facebook groups, or a gander on Reddit will spell it all out for you.  Even here at BoLS, we did our own tier video for whatever that is worth.  The point I’m making here is that your theme army, your cool piece of artwork that you’re going to spend hours and hours building and painting, this passion project you have, should be the culmination of all the components of a good story.  There are plenty of stories in the Horus Heresy of last stands and long odds, and in thematic army creation its fine to make your force reflect that rather than stacking as it for competition.  Theres a time and a place.


Some final thoughts here: Sometimes exact units aren’t mentioned, its okay to guess and extrapolate based on everything we know about the legions and various armies.  Everyone has Tactical Squads, it sure makes sense to support them with some Rhinos or Predators.  A bunch of rare Leviathan Dreadnoughts bunched up in one little 2500 point force is sure cool to look at, but realistically do you think that happened often?  My last bit of advice is this, make sure that your list is legal. While many players aren’t going to complain about an extra point or a unit too many here and there in casual games, events have strict rules and your list needs to be legal.  Stay within the confines of a legal list so you can play the game in any event.  Its incredibly disappointing to get DQ’d and not get to show off your army or play in an event you traveled for.

Lore Connections

Is there anything unique about the units in your army. Maybe they have inverse colors schemes or certain markings that you can exemplify with decals.   Are there any characters in your army that standout in the lore?  Even lesser mentioned lieutenants and captains can be fun hobby projects and kit bashes that help anchor your army and connect it to an event.  Would this be a time to deploy a display board to really sell the scenario you have in mind to really spell it out for viewers?

Paint Scheme

Probably my favorite phase of the process.  As mentioned above I have a folder full of pictures and howtos, painting techniques and examples.  I’ll even periodically reach out to fellow artists in facebook groups or discords to ask them questions about their paint jobs.  Don’t be bashful, people love to help other people and will generally provide answers or link you to a video or a step by step.  I’ve had complete strangers walk me through their paint schemes and show me further examples.  Your scheme should help sell the mood and story you’re telling as well.  Break out that color wheel and start looking at how color is going to play into the “Vibes” of the army.  If you’re playing with Death Guard, greens purples, yellows and oranges are going to do wonders to exemplify illness or sickness (are you down with it?).  We’ve probably all seen the amazing paint jobs of Alpha legion troops transitioning  between impersonating another legion and their iconic blue metallic armor.

Simple things such as priming Grey, White, Black or a contrasting color can do wonders to set a tone.  White and Grey is going to give you bright poppy, vivid colors that might convey that the army is fresh, new, and well equipped.  Black primer is going to make for very dark and muted colors as though your army has seen some “stuff”.  Take your time here, do some tests on junk models or spoons and really work out what you want to do.  You’re going to be spending a lot of time you might as well develop a scheme that you enjoy painting that is effective.


I often say to novice painters who ask for help, “a good base can elevate an okay paint job”.  Don’t forget about your basing.  Not only does it make the miniature feel complete but it enhances your paint job if done correctly.  Basing sells the locale of the miniatures and helps to tie them to the story.  Its one of the best ways to show your viewer where that miniatures is, display who they are fighting and show any dangers or unique features they trying to overcome in their story.  It can also be used to cover mistakes!  If you’re playing Space Wolves are they going to marching on Prospero?  Maybe its in the cold desolate keep of The Fang.  If Imperial Fists are your jam, maybe they are dug into fortifications and cover or among strewn rubble.


The “Vibes”

Monji in our video all about Narrative army building coined this “the Vibes”.  In simple terms this is the overall feel of the army.  Based on who you’re painting and where they are, what do you want the overall impression to be?  Are these the heroes of the story, maybe they are the villain?  Maybe they are somewhere in between.  Think about the ambiance and the general look of the army, are you going to lean into the smug, clean, arrogance of the Emperors Children who likely just swiped left on your tinder profile?  You can show the cold aloofness with high contrast purples and cold blue underpinning the white highlights.

Is your jam going to be the gleaming golds and reds of the Custodes marching to the defense of the Imperial palace?  Maybe the bases are done in a granite or pale rubble with artwork and statues strew about.  Maybe their armor is looking ten thousand years old but still holding strength.  Maybe your jam is going to World Eaters with bases piled high with slaughter at Istvann IV, how many different techniques can you use to generate blood platter?  This goes beyond simply your paint scheme and blocking in colors.  This is where you tell your story and convey your translation of the lore.  Maybe you’re going hard into the grimdark and you’ve ordered a whole 55 gallon drum of enamel wash (just crack a window).

Final Thoughts

Everyone has a different way of playing this game and finding entertainment within it.  If you’ve never tried building a thematic list or have always been a competitive player maybe give it a go this year.  You’ll be very surprised how many Heresy players will appreciate seeing depictions of the novels or excerpts from the Black Books  comes to life.  As we approach Adepticon and some of the biggest Horus Heresy events in the world I’m looking forward to seeing what players have put together for the events.  I am consistently blown when visiting these conventions or seeing pictures of the armies and models.   The attention to detail that people put into their displays and armies is next level.  If you’ve never been to an event 2023 is the time to go.  Until next time; keep rolling them dice.

What are you working on now?  Whats the coolest narrative or theme army for Horus Heresy that you’ve seen?

Ryan Hilton
Author: Ryan Hilton
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