Unless you live under a rock (or, perhaps, don't play 40k... but if the latter why the hell are you reading this blog anyway?) you will know that Commissars have been much discussed of late. Having been recently nerfed, there is a debate raging about whether things have gone too far. But before I put my two cents in on this, I thought I would explore back through the history of commissars, to see what their long-standing influence has been, to best gauge whether they have been nerfed too much compared to what they used to do. From my own recollections, their role has changed greatly over the years, but I went through my codex history taking some pictures to back my thoughts up.
So first up a blast from before my past - I never used this guard codex, it is actually from before I played 40k, I only have it because someone was throwing out some (very) old books and I took it to have a bit of a look at what things were like before I joined up, laced my boots, popped my imperial primer in my breast pocket and hefted my lasgun to face the enemies of our glorious emperor...
Looking at this they started with a very simple role, hopping around from squad to squad providing a morale boost in key areas. I couldn't find anything in the rules regarding summary execution, jus the morale boost. For no downside whatsoever! They didn't do much, but they had no drawbacks.
My own induction to the guard came with this codex in particular, although of course it was alongside the standard guard codex. I can't seem to locate my standard codex of this era, I think it was more used and didn't survive (damn paperbacks) as I was catachan about half the time, but whether catachan or not I needed the standard codex.
I do remember the basic rules at this time. They had a LD of 10, compared to most officers 8, maybe 9. And at the first failed morale test, they'd execute the guy in charge, and retest on their, better leadership. This lead to a deliberate playstyle at the time of giving officers absolutely no equipment, seeing the unit fail the morale test and going "oh, no... right, commissar takes command, you've just made my army better." As at the time most guard units could test on the leadership of a nearby officer, it was a welcome change to see the commissar step up. This is where he started to have an impact beyond his immediate squad.
I did always love this particular special rule for catachan armies, and was pleased to see it at least mentioned in the fluff in the latest army book.
So in this edition, the commissar was absolutely useless... until you failed that morale check. Then he made the squad better than it was under the officer, and if in a command squad the surrounding squads too. This strange state of affairs lead to opponents either hitting the commissars squad very hard to make sure to take it all the way out, no morale test... or just focus on hitting other aspects of the army and watch as an increasingly frustrated commissar sat on the bench grumbling how he could do far better if only they'd force his commander to take a morale test...
Next we have a codex I have a great deal of love for - the skills and doctrines codex. Having lost my independent catachan codex, I could at least still fashion something similar with the traits and drawbacks system.
This also radically changed the usage of the commissar for me. First off, a commissar now provided a benefit before taking over command - a nice leadership bonus to represent his focusing of the officers attention. Tied in with leadership value being communicated down vox lines, it was not uncommon to have an entire Leadership 10 guard army. I remember frequent arguments with friends... "There is a dread daemon prince towering over them, why don't they flee?!?" "Well, there's a guy on a walkie talkie saying that he'll shoot their commander if the commander tries to run away, so they should probably just follow his example..." This was a massive boost for the entire army, and if someone tried to break the lynchpin by gunning for the command squad, I could usually set it up to be well hidden, resilient, and if they DID force a morale check... up steps the commissar to take command...
In this edition voxes were reworked (boo!) to being related to the new orders system, rather than a leadership boost. Which massively changed commissars role once again. No longer there to provide a bulwark of leadership for an entire army, they could now provide a short range aura effect (for lords) which not only helped with morale, but also with orders. Vox links gave squads rerolls on orders, but those lovely heavy weapon squads couldn't take a vox. What's a guy to do? On leadership 7 they'll fail the order half the time. Go stand a commissar lord in the nest of heavy weapon teams, and just watch how clearly they receive your instructions now. It's like he is a locus of calm, softening the sounds of battle to make your officers voice a clarion call...
The summary execution rule was still there to hit the highest leadership ability, and I do remember a funny tale from this time as a friend played Creed, Yarrick and Nork in one uber squad... an uber squad that failed a morale test. So Yarrick shot Creed. Nork then beat Yarrick to death. The unit then failed the reroll and ran away anyway. Three heroes of the imperium lost in one bad afternoon...
We then came to the first Astra Milita-fuckit... last guard codex before the age of indices. In this one the commissar became less focussed on killing the officer core and you had a degree of choice over who he shot. There was still the chance your opponent could have him execute the sergeant (or a special weapon trooper if he wanted to be extra cruel, the gun costs more than any guardsman) but we are back to a shooting meaning a passed test as opposed to a reroll. The Lords also still have their aura, but have lost the effect on orders.
This brings us to the index and codex, which gave us the much maligned "shoot one pass the test"
Now I can see both why this was thought characterful, and also some problems. Shooting one guy to pass the test was, by this point, well established as part of how commissars work. However, that had always, to that point, been for THEIR squad. There was even a brief time when commissar lords were IC and basic commissars were squad upgrades, like sergeants. In this age of aura effects and characters not joining squads, a single dude being able to provide such coverage to so many units was probably a bit too effective.
I can also understand why they've tried to alter it. Shoot a guy, get a reroll does have historical precedent, AND the caveat of "the first time" means he only effects one squad. So I guess he can be insurance for a couple but he can only work on one.
The problem with this, is that in prior times of reroll, there was always a chance to pass. Whether that be trying to pass on HIS leadership which was better than the recently deceased officers, or even when you've taken an absolute hiding and need a double 1 to pass, that slim possibility. But now we are in an era where sometimes, morale checks simply cannot be passed. If a unit of 20 conscripts takes 8 casualties, their leadership of 4 means they are losing some more regardless. I'm hoping for a 1, and I get it... but because there is a commissar nearby, I MUST execute a guy, then reroll... let's say I roll a 6. I have gone from losing 5 more guys, leaving me on 7 (not great but potentially still useful) to losing 10 more guys, plus the one I shot, leaving me on 1 survivor. The commissar should NOT cause an outright panic like that, that is precisely what he is supposed to prevent.
How would I fix it? One of several ways.
Option 1, make it a choice. The commissar can choose to intervene with one squad per turn, but he has to decide before they roll for the morale. That way I can avoid wasting him on a lost cause.
Option 2, Have an improved roll. Whether it be "first squad per turn" or a chosen squad, the unit that the commissar "helps" rolls a D3 for the morale test. This means that even in the case of the "can't hope to pass" he could still prove useful in stemming the tide of fleeing troopers.
Option 3, give him a drawback. Let him keep his trigger happy ways where he makes a squad auto pass, but there is a downside. Each time he does so, roll a dice... on a 1, the squad decides "frak this" kills the commissar and the original morale test stands. People may be more receptive to him being effective if there was an obvious drawback... force enough morale tests near him and pretty soon the trigger happy son-of-a-bitch will find himself the victim of a friendly fire accident.
Sadly, with the FAQ recently out, I can't see them changing course on that one again any time soon, so sadly commissars will not be a feature of many of my armies. For my catachans that makes little difference, I had deliberately taken none in my catachan lists so far simply for fluff reasons. It is a little annoying for my "Grot Revolution" as this is a soviet style guard army that is lead by Yarrick and has several commissars. But I still have to work out how that list works in 8th edition anyway, so I'm sure I can tinker around and find something to do with them.
Anyway, that's my two cents on the commissar debate, let me know your thoughts.