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The Warhammer Ethos

Finally. Later than I’d hoped for, Sword of Justice has been sent off for the first round of editorial comments. While it’s a relief to have it finished (I can sleep again now. Maybe even eat.), this is my least favourite part of the process. I’ve been living with the project for months, and now I’ll find out if it works. It’s just too nerve-wracking.

So I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’ve been thinking about the whole ethos of Warhammer Fantasy. What makes it tick. What makes it different. Nick Kyme wrote a blogpost a while back on this subject that captures a lot of what I think about it.

The essential thing, it seems to me, is that Warhammer essentially embodies a uniquely British sensibility. That doesn’t mean, of course, that other nationalities can’t enjoy it, or contribute to it, or take it in new directions. But there is something quintessentially UK about the general outlook. Perhaps it’s the fatalism. Most Fantasy is pretty optimistic, pretty uplifting. The good guys win, the bad guys lose. Warhammer’s not like that. Not only do the bad guys win a lot, but there’s a lot less separating good from bad in the first place. Malus Darkblade is a hero, for God’s sake.

The shades of grey, the moral complexity, is what makes Warhammer so interesting. Though there are moments of heroism, snatches of optimism, the overall picture is bleak. And that reflects our national character. We like to see the potential for disaster, the scope for disappointment. Any nation that’s been reduced, within a single generation, from having a world-spanning empire to owning a few islands in the mid-Atlantic and six tanks is going to feel a bit insecure.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Being cynical and world-weary has its compensations. It makes a nice change from all that strident confidence out there. And it gave the world Warhammer. If you’ve ever trudged through Bristol city centre on a Monday morning with the wind whipping rain into your face, the buses on strike and the streets still covered with the gruesome remains of the weekend debauchery, then you’ll know all about the Empire. It’s just like that. But with undead, rat-men and mutants too. Brilliant.

Categories: Warhammer Fantasy
  1. 9 October, 2009 at 15:20

    I see your point on the bleak outlook. There’s a real cynical realism to the whole Warhammer universe, both past and present. Like we were saying at Games Day, working for the NHS should give me GREAT insight into that pit of despondent, miserable despair…

    Congratulamajoobies on finishing up the first draft. Even if there aren’t any scantily-clad elves on the cover. 😉

    • chriswraight
      12 October, 2009 at 09:10

      Hi Pyroriffic – Yes, I remember that conversation well! I’m looking forward to reading some of your 40K fiction, and trying to spot the NHS inspiration…

      • 12 October, 2009 at 18:41

        I look forward to seeing you there.

        There’s cake and everything.

  2. 9 October, 2009 at 17:00

    Also. It now occurs to me that since I’ve got round to setting up my own WordPress blog, the link for the temporary forums that WAS on my user name has now gone.


    Bring your own mug. There may be coffee and cake.

  3. 9 October, 2009 at 17:51

    Hey Chris. Great to meet you at Games Day, though I’m sorry it was so brief.

    You’re spot-on what makes Warhammer unique. At its best it’s low-down, slightly cynical, and certainly not bold and shiny. It also has a terrible sense of humour: let us not forget that the dwarfs’ language is named after a toilet lid 😉

    • chriswraight
      12 October, 2009 at 09:12

      Hey George – good to meet you too. I completely did not know that about Khazalid, but now you mention it, it makes perfect sense. Excellent!

  4. lord Slaanesh
    11 October, 2009 at 01:08

    Put peoples definiton of heroes change over time, I mean some that were considered “Heroes” at the time were complety barstards, in another age.”heroisum” from a dark elfs perspective would be survial of (fate/rivals/ete)and wealth to an extent.

    I guess hero is defined by the viewer.

  5. lord Slaanesh
    11 October, 2009 at 01:10

    Dam really should have spellchecked that, sorry Chris.

    • chriswraight
      12 October, 2009 at 09:14

      Yes, that’s absolutely true. The trick in Warhammer, it seems to me, is to create characters that are true to the dark, cynical nature of the setting, while also being heroes modern readers can identify with and root for. That’s the genius of Mike Lee and Dan Abnett’s Malus – an utterly alien morality, which nonetheless makes sense.

  6. Brennon Shaw
    12 October, 2009 at 08:34

    Im a ‘budding’ as it were writer of fantasy fiction at university, doing a course in creative writing with professional authors learning the intricacy of writing and I cannot agree more.

    A lot of my work is based on the mythos of ‘Warhammer’ and the Old World. That dark, gritty realism which seems a missing part of the fantasy lore. Its not all elves and gnomes, and thats something I try and press home with my writing. Its the bloody battles where the good guys lose just as many men as the enemy, where a character doesnt just survive because he ‘is a good guy’ but by the sheer force of will and sinew which drives him through the harsh world.

    When I try and explain this to people on my course I usually use this way of doing so…

    Typical ‘fantasy’ is an elf, the elegant and fantastical magical being, pristine and delicate with equally delicate languages and songs from wine swilling taverns.

    ‘Warhammer’ is the human, its the id as well as the ego. Its the brute, the bearded mercenary captain with his eye gouged out by an orc, the grizzled chin with a sneering curled lip and a ingrained hatred for anyone different from himself.

    As for heroes, I always remember Faramir’s words in the LotR’s films…

    ”was his sense of duty any less than yours?, Was he truly evil”

    Which, to be fair can apply to most races in Warhammer, even Dark Elves and Chaos Warriors. Even they have a ‘reason’ to be what they are and belief it is for a good cause.

    If you want to read some of my fiction add me on facebook as ‘Brennon Shaw’…would love to talk more with people about this

    • chriswraight
      12 October, 2009 at 09:17

      Hi Brennon, Thanks for your comments. It’s interesting that you mention LotR. The books themselves have a real sense of fatalism about them, which is something I like in them. The elves of Middle Earth are much grimmer and nuanced than most Fantasy elves, and I’m sure this was an influence on the Warhammer examples.

      Good luck with the writing!

  7. 12 October, 2009 at 11:34

    In a way, moments of genuine heroism and selflessness have more meaning and poignancy in a bleak world. It’s the will of certain individuals not to be swallowed up by the morass, not be just another victim of a world doomed to destruction, that makes them strong characters, especially if they suffer from all of the foibles and insecurities of real people.

    When hope fails, that is when true heroes are born. Or to put it another way, ‘if everybody is special, then noone is’.

  8. Brennon Shaw
    12 October, 2009 at 18:35

    Thanks for the luck, am hoping that it will have a positive influence on some of my writing at the moment.

    The whole idea of heroes in the Warhammer sense came when me and some friends were doing Warhammer: Fantasy Roleplay. The world and game design of it limits you to a lack of ‘runfangs’ and ‘runes of power’ and has you with meagre weapons, broken and rusted armour and a real sense of danger and fear when you are travelling the great forest roads.

    The bleakness you mentioned created our four party members as beacons of light, but not the gleaming ones of Aragorn or Frodo but a flicker of a candle which could be blown out in an instant, and your deeds while vanquishing the ‘evil’ doesnt always solve the problem.

    An example of this came when my comrades, two dwarves, an elf, and a human. (Warrior, Miner, Ranger, Warrior Priest) were defending a town against the forces of Beastmen and Chaos Warriors. To cut a long story short, we stopped the beastmen but ended up having to destroy half of the town in the process, burning it to trap the beastmen. The people in charge of the town praised us, because they had the money to rebuild, but the normal people hated us for what we had done, as they would die anyway…sadly.

    I like that Warhammer Hero ethos…that you can try and do good but you can never please everyone. Your not the King of Gondor who solves everyones problems in the world, your a mortal and ‘human’ man/woman who is just doing what his morals say.

  9. Alessandro
    13 October, 2009 at 05:33

    The Grim Darkness of both War Hammers is what makes it so interesting. I bet heroes from other fantasy universes would just commit suicide over the depressing Grim Darkness of any Warhammer if they ended up there… or be burned at the stake, or brutally murdered, or whatever varieties of fates worse than death both settings have to offer

  10. 14 November, 2010 at 02:42

    Hi Chris!
    As a fellow Bristol-dweller your take on Bristol:

    “If you’ve ever trudged through Bristol city centre on a Monday morning with the wind whipping rain into your face, the buses on strike and the streets still covered with the gruesome remains of the weekend debauchery, then you’ll know all about the Empire”

    …is pretty bang-on! I so often think of the Empire when wandering through Bristol with the rain hammering into my face and the inevitable grimmace the weather around these parts gives you! So thanks for that analogy, it made me chuckle!

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