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In the fictional universe of Warhammer 40,000, the Dark Eldar are a Kindred of the Eldar, an ancient and advanced race of elf-like humanoids. Their armies usually have the advantages of speed, though they are often lacking in resilience. They are the thematic equivalent of the Warhammer Fantasy Dark Elves, and indeed Dark Elves in general. Because of their affinity for bloodlust and inflicting pain on their foes, they are generally considered an evil race and the miniatures reflect this, with spikes and jagged armour plates being common features.
The Dark Eldar are depicted by Games Workshop as a race that is sadistic in the extreme, revelling 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 of 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 they are sustained only through the absorption of the psychic power released by pain, torture and anguish of other sentient beings.
Games Workshop decided to make the Dark Eldar as a separate army, after it became fairly common to see gamers collect "Dark Eldar" armies, which are total conversions/customizations of Eldar miniatures while still retaining the standard Eldar rules. It was also relatively convenient to add the Dark Eldar to the existing Eldar storyline without any conflict, right at the catastrophe that destroyed the Eldar home-world.
Since the 3rd edition release of Codex: Dark Eldar in 1998, no new army book had been published until 2010 (most armies received an updated army book during the 4th edition era). A revision of this book was made for the 4th edition of the game, but it said "revised, 2nd edition". It was released in 2003 and was the same book save for some changes to Wyches (including Wych led armies), and the addition of arcane war-gear and vehicle war-gear options.
A complete overhaul of the Dark Eldar model range and rules was hinted at in 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..."
The new edition of Codex: Dark Eldar was released in November 2010, along with a completely new range of miniatures including new versions of the Dark Eldar Warriors (now Kabalite Warriors), Wyches and Reaver jetbike models. Subsequently, new models for the Talos and Scourges were released, as well as a new skimmer called the Venom, which is a version of the Vyper used by the Craftworld Eldar, though used for transport instead of fire support.
The Warhammer 40,000 expansion book 'Battle Missions', released in 2010 includes three scenarios designed specifically for Dark Eldar armies.
Whereas other armies in Warhammer 40,000 may take to the field of battle for a variety of reasons, the Dark Eldar are depicted as venturing into 'realspace' for the sole purpose of piratical raids. Their armies reflect this, with their vehicles emphasising speed over armour protection. Their warriors generally are also lightly armoured compared to those of most other armies, but are able to move faster. As with the vehicles of other armies, players may pay points for upgrades such as ["Flickerfields"], which allow them a small degree of protection, or "Night Shields", which reduce the enemy's effective weapon range.
In the game, a large proportion of their units have exceptional initiative, one of the best in the game. For example, Leith Hersperax has initiative 9. However, they have quite low toughness and strength.
Guides on how to paint Dark Eldar feature in the following books/magazines...
- 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 4-9 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. Wahammer 40,000: Battle Missions, (Games Workshop Ltd, Nottingham: 2010), pp. 24-31