Spoilers (maybe?) for the Warhammer Fantasy Battle franchise.
Nottingham is famous for three things: Robin Hood, knife crime, and the headquarters of a cynical corporation preying upon the pliable and easily-addicted masses.
Starting in 1983, Games Workshop (GW) released a series of editions of a war game based in a fantasy version of our world to serve as the backdrop for tales of swords and sorcery, an idea which may sound oddly familiar to some readers. Unlike certain other IPs, though, the focus was on units of fantastical armies led by extraordinary generals, rather than the role-playing experience of a few characters. Thus, players could enjoy setting
Egyptian Mulhorandi Nehekaran skeletons against Sylvanian zombies, dwarf riflemen against elf bowmen, dark wizards against zealous witch hunters, and dinosaurs against dragons in the most ridiculous ‘Who would win?’ competition until the advent of Super Smash Brothers.
Although the costs involved with keeping up between editions and the purchase of new models were considerable, to the extent that expense became a sore point to fans, said fans were devoted, albeit too few in number to prevent the eventual cessation of the line and the (controversial) arrival of Age of Sigmar, which is completely different because instead of elves and orks they have aelfs and orruks. And, completely unlike other games made by the same company, it takes place in space.
Suffice to say, a significant proportion of the long-time fans was displeased. Yet, whatever else one might say about the setting, with its various editions, revisions, books, RPGs, spin-offs, and computer games, it has always been of somewhat niche appeal, even amongst its presumed demographic. Why is this, when the world is full of such bombastic character?
Daft and Gritty
Warhammer Fantasy Battle (WFB) and its intellectual descendants describe themselves as “dark and gritty”, despite the fact that armies are filled with costumes of such outrageous flamboyancy they would be “camp as Christmas” were it not for all the over-compensatory frowns stamped all over people’s faces.
What “dark and gritty” really means is that everything is terrible because the stasis of the setting is enforced by people too prejudiced and stubborn and emotional to talk to one another like grown men/dwarfs/frog-beasts thus requiring all disagreements – from questions of territory to the basics of personal hygiene – to be resolved with conflict, on which the most malign forces in the setting thrive, like a dark harvest or malevolent currency. BOOM; satire.
The predisposition towards mindless violence is, to be fair, a prerequisite for the entire game: anyone can fight anyone else. Equally, despite the questionable reputation of the game’s fans in certain quarters, whether those who justify that reputation comprise a greater proportion than in, say, footballing or water polo is not something I can really examine. Suffice to say, however, that as a social exercise and a cohesive narrative, the integrity of the world has a surprisingly shaky basis even before taking into account the extent to which the concepts ran afoul of market forces.
So, we have a world of growly characters from transparent pastiches of real and fictional cultures fighting each other. So what? That just sounds like Forgotten Realms: War Simulator. Surely there cannot be much more to say?
Well, the strength of the Warhammer world is in its villains, namely the forces of Chaos and the very concept of magic itself.
Many settings struggle to give magic itself a character. Many fantasy franchises have magic as a tool or plot device, usually kept at arm’s length, lest the characters grow too powerful through it. Warhammer solves the problem of a power cap on magic by making it meth as cooked by Doc Brown and Satan.
Magic is powerful but it can come with a whole host of side-effects, including an actual dæmonic host, but also insanity, being marked with eldritch scars or just exploding in a shower of green sparks. This leads to an interesting dichotomy: yes, I could try to incinerate my foes with sorcerous fire, but is it worth the risk?
Magic’s character is underlined by the way in which it transforms those who wield it: Dark Magic and Necromancy inevitably warp those who draw upon them, comprised as they are from inadvisable admixtures of the eight Winds of Magic which billow from the Realm of Chaos. Even using one wind alone is hazardous: Chamon, the Gold Wind, slowly solidifies the minds and bodies of humans who draw upon it, turning them into logical, emotionally distant statues; Aqshy, the Red Wind of Fire, makes its users passionate, reckless, and turns their hair red and wild.
Thus, magic is not simply the act of flicking a wand or saying some words; using magic is like wrestling an alligator into submission, and the alligator is on fire, and there is no way anyone is getting out of this entirely unscathed.
Some fantasy settings have arbitrary restrictions on magic to try to mitigate the ensuing arms race which springs up as a result: Forgotten Realms has spell slots, Warcraft has mana, and so on. Some settings try to make magic intimidating by making it dangerous to the unprepared or certain users: Dragon Age, for example, had mages who risked demonic possession; The Wheel of Time had men who would succumb to madness. These were not bad but, in practice, they mean that the drawback will only ever be deployed at narratively appropriate times or as an excuse to create consequence-free murders. Forces which stick around, or which are seen to be at work constantly – Warhammer’s magic and the touch of Chaos; Command and Conquer’s tiberium – these provide focal points for a world’s tone and impetus to a narrative. The most engaging forms of magic, and those with enduring character, are those with consequences which linger beyond the act of a single spell or ritual.
Races with more magical aptitude are less likely to suffer these markings. Others, like the Dwarfs, are resistant to magic and can never become wizards; the Skaven, on the other hand, take the “magic as dangerous drug” theme up to eleven, snort it all down, and then turn into hideous, crystallized monstrosities.
This brings us to the races.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
WFB gives us the standard fantasy race expectation: cultures and peoples begin and end at borders with a minimum of interaction outside of plot-designated trading centres. There are humans in several flavours: the Empire, which breaks out of the standard fantasy template by being well into its Renaissance; Bretonnia, which climbs right back into that template, dragging Arthurian romance with it; Kislev, which is populated exclusively by enormous, moustachioed men, cartoon witches, and bears; Norsca, realm of the demon-Viking-pirate-wizards; and the Southern Realms, which… are also there.
Further abroad there are also such fantastically innovative cultures as Araby (that is a noun), Cathay, Ind, and Nippon. Fortunately, we do not need to worry about these cultures being misrepresented in the game’s world because, generally speaking, they are not represented at all.
The cultures which did make it into the game are all overblown: the Empire is the Holy Roman Empire if it had access to magic, griffons, and cannon-toting locomotives straight out of Leonardo da Vinci’s wildest dreams; Bretonnia is a mish-mash of feudal Britain and France fermented in the aforementioned Arthurian legend and sprinkled with a little ancient conspiracy, and so on, and all with an air of malevolence, bigotry, and a layer of encrusted dung. What is present is all tremendous fun and highly conducive to moving pieces of plastic aggressively towards an opponent for three hours on a Saturday afternoon.
The non-human cultures are similarly fun but are, again, largely paper-thin allusions to Tolkein or real-world cultures. Thus, the haughty High Elves and the grudge-toting Dwarfs are not really on speaking terms and frequently come to blows, despite the fact that the Elves live hundreds of miles away on a magical island and the Dwarfs cling to their shattered civilization beneath the mountains far inland. Various kinds of horror film tropes are rehearsed in the Vampire Counts and the Tomb Kings. Perhaps the only really interesting ideas are interesting, not for their creative source, but the creativity of their adaptation and the ur-culture’s lack of representation in fiction, namely the Lizardmen (Meso-American, caste-based culture of different species whose defining trait is the inscrutable plan of the Old Ones) and the Chaos Dwarfs (Mesopotamian sorcerer-smiths whose defining trait is being AWOL since 5th edition).
There are exceptions: the mad science of the Skaven (magically mutated rat-people) and the cosmologically confused Greenskins (various flavours of hilariously enraged, ambulatory fungus) prove that there were original thoughts at GW at some point. It is a shame, in some respects, that even these ideas are fairly shallow because, like everyone else in the setting, they exist only to find increasingly contrived reasons to fight. It also results in a great deal of telling without showing: the ancient, wise and inscrutable Slann choose to go to war with the flighty and isolationist Wood Elves because it is the will of the Old Ones; the bloodthirsty Orks go to war with the vicious Dark Elves because they do not know any better. Everyone’s motive is, allegedly, different, but the outcome is precisely the same. A war game does not need much more than that: a setting for fiction needs a great deal more, not least because it raises a lot of uncomfortable questions otherwise. If distant Cathay has such incredible advances in science and magic, why are they not the bulwark against Chaos, instead of the dirty, dingy Empire? What’s so special about them, aside from their superior, Germanic scowls?
On the other hand, because these cultures are all so bombastic, it is quite easy to find one to like. In adaptations, it is also quite easy to evoke the core concept behind a given character and thus the setting’s tone. Even Total War: Warhammer II, which still appears to be suffering from an acute case of not-actually-being-finished-despite-having-been-released-a-year-and-a-half-ago, manages this. The result is a game which, for all its technical and lexical faults, portrays the setting well and, crucially, is fun, especially for those of us too clumsy and/or poor to play the game on which it is based.
Fun though they might be, it is hard to take these cultures seriously. The Warhammer novels try to get around this by focusing on very small groups of characters, but the writing in them is not strong enough to overcome the intrinsic silliness. The writing is not necessarily bad, but the books do tend to take themselves a mite too seriously. Principally, it is hard to be immersed in a work of fiction as anything other than a collection of sequential scenes, rather than a living, breathing universe, when there are contradictions inherent to the setting.
Gav Thorpe, one of the Warhammer writers is alleged to have said, ‘there are as many elves as the plot demands’. The High Elves of Warhammer are a dying race but, in the fluff, are regularly massacred in the hundreds, if not thousands. As a concession to the format, that is fine, and it is far from the only one: where does the Empire keep finding all these able bodies to march into the maw of Chaos when their entire civilization is afraid of basic sanitation? Why do the Elves and Dwarfs not just get over themselves and let bygones be bygones? Why is Lord Mazdamundi’s magic able to drain seas and raise mountains until it suddenly cannot (i.e. when he is in a game)? Why are all the ladies bathykolpian and permanently exposed to the elements?
The answers to all these questions and more always boil down to ‘because it is a game’, and therein lies the problem: there cannot be a nuanced reason why Mazdamundi does not simply incinerate all who defy him, or why Chaos has not yet won, or why all the ladies’ clothes keep falling off. The game has built up over several editions and exists to sell a product to a largely male demographic. Anything else is window dressing, marketing, pantomime campery, compensating with volume and colour for the lack of substance. Warhammer is great fun, and even has some compelling characters and ideas, and so it could well inspire budding writers. Yet, for all that it might inspire, a would-be writer should exercise a great deal of caution in trying to mimic Warhammer, lest he share in its success and its downfall.
Next week, I hope to look at WFB‘s futuristic cousin. Praise the Emperor!