Thursday, 26 February 2009

On Warhammer, British vs. American Fantasy, and Pessimism

As a teenager (let's say until the age of about 16 or so) the biggest drain on my time and pocket money was not girls, cigarettes or alchohol, but Citadel Miniatures (at the time a separate company from Games Workshop but which made all of its figures). I loved Warhammer. My friends and I played a lot of Warhammer 40,000 and Blood Bowl too, and we even created our own gang-warfare battle game a few years before Necromunda came out. But Warhammer was always what we came back to and what we did basically every weekday night after school and often all day at weekends. I like it just as much, if not more so, than D&D, and it's probably only because I can't cart hundreds of lead figures across Eurasia every couple of months that this blog isn't a Warhammer- rather than an RPG-focused one.

There are lots of things to love about Warhammer - the gonzo weirdness, the random generators, the endearing amorality, the sheer gothicness of the whole thing. But I think what I like most about it is the pessimism. Pessimism seeps through all of Games Workshop's lines like a sickness; from Warhammer 40,000's tagline that "In the Grim Darkness of the Far Future, There is Only War", to Necromunda's bleak vision of gangs and mutants squabbling over radioaction-scarred urban jungle, these games are not in any way nice.

Warhammer's own particular twist on that theme is the spread of Chaos, whose tendrils are gradually extending themselves over the world and who will never, can never, be defeated - no matter how hard it is fought against. Humanity will slowly be brought under the dominion of the Chaos Gods, and the best that can be hoped for is that the process will be prolonged. There is something compelling about the idea of The Empire, ramshackle and disease-ridden but having to be constantly vigilant against betrayal by its own people - almost like the USSR under Stalin - terrified of spies and fifth-columns, forever jumping at its own shadow, and doomed to inevitable failure.

I believe I am right in saying that Warhammer owes much about this incredibly bleak meta-narrative to the works of Tolkien. Many people mistakenly (in my opinion) believe that The Lord of the Rings has a happy ending, forgetting that, taken in context, it is really just an account of the last hurrah of a once mighty and beautiful civilisation that has been slowly collapsing over the course of thousands of years. Something of this atmosphere fed into Warhammer at its inception and has strongly influenced it ever since. But I also think that there is something in the British, and particularly in the English, view of the world, that influenced both Tolkien and Games Workshop (and also Moorcock and the Fighting Fantasy creators - the other points of the British fantasy square).

In comparison to people from other countries, British people are deeply pessimistic. I can say that, having grown up in the country but spent a lot of time in others. I notice it every time I go back home. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of their/our defining national characteristics. Of course there are many exceptions to this rule, but I don't think the sheer numb weight of cynicism and world-weariness present in British culture can really be ignored. (This can be a great quality, of course - it's what makes the British sense of humour so richly ironic, which is incidentally something else that can be noticed in Warhammer - but more on that in another entry.) And it sets the British in direct contrast to Americans, for whom a defining national characteristic is optimism.

In fact, I believe that in many ways Warhammer and D&D can be taken as representative of the cultures which created them. On the one hand you have a cynical, nasty, bleak and darkly humurous setting whose dominant idea is decay. And on the other you have a game basically founded on the principles of rugged individualism and self-betterment - in which a set of characters fight to success all on their own, without much in the way of a helping hand, or else die trying. In a strange sort of way, you don't get anything more representative of British values than Warhammer, nor anything more representative of American values than D&D.

What that shouldn't mean is that D&D campaigns can't take some of the pessimism of Warhammer and make it their own. It's perfectly possible to be a rugged individualist in a world slowly collapsing. I'm not talking about 'doing' Warhammer with D&D (why have that cotton when you can have the silk of WHFRP?) but introducing that key idea of an inevitable turn for the worse in the wheel of history... I like it and want to build a campaign around it.

This rather rambling entry doesn't have much else to it apart from that. I hope it makes at least some vague sort of sense.


  1. Loss of empire; the death of deference; the de-industrialisation of the first industrial power; the social upheaval of the the 60s-80s. Who can deem it a wonder that modern British fantasias are infused with that most particular malaise of the British psyche: stoic pessimism.

    Just like the comics of the period, Warrior, Eagle, and 2000AD in particular (the latter a possible 5th gateway drug for British gamer geeks?), post-war British fantasy games are infused with the ineradicable - and quintessentially English - conviction that "it's all gone to the dogs". The world has been weighed and found wanting in the hearts of the English; things can only get worse, and there's nothing to be done but to trudge stolidly on. I recall clean cut figures like Dan Dare and Dr Who slowly fading into irrelevance, to be supplanted in our schoolboy affections by the morally ambiguous figures of Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, and the ABC Warriors.

    Away from the dark monochrones of the British 'funny books' J.G.Ballard and Moorcock especially are (IMO) characteristic of British post-war, post-imperial fantasy. Both seem almost obsessed with the idea of a world in decay, one gradually becoming inimical to the cozy certainties of the English (tea and scones, cricket, the monarchy, dithery Anglican vicars, etc.).

    To generalise grossly: American fantasy can be typified by the brash, 'can-do' machismo of Conan (and his antecedents in the western, the boxing story and the gangster yarn). The British riposte to this brawling, braggart self-made man? None other than Elric of Melnibone; a drawling and slightly fey public schoolboy recreated as an ennui-ridden emperor of a dying island race.

    Great article. Good food for thought. Johnny Foreigner needs more British fantasy. Builds moral fibre dontcherkno. ;)

  2. Good read and interesting observations.

    I remember when I got the Fiend Folio (maybe age 12 or 13 or something) that I was kinda freaked-out by it. It was certainly way darker in art than DCSIII diaphanous dryads and the like - I developed something of a morbid fascination for that book for a while...

  3. Good stuff, excellent points.

    I personally think (and have written about it before on my blog) that the difference in the British and American approach to fantasy is proximity to all the bits of Middle Age and Dark Age history. As Americans, we are somewhat more comfortably removed from the actual horrors of the time period that the sort of pseudo-medieval fantasy norm is based on. Warhammer is a British product; Greyhawk, the Realms, and dozens more somewhat brighter and egalitarian worlds are North American. Camelot shines brighter from further away, I think.

    Here was my entry on this topic, just for reference:

  4. Hmmm... if pessimism is a defining trait for the British, do I even dare contemplate what a Russian RPG would look like?

    It'd probably have to carry a suicide warning on the cover! lol

  5. Nice post! Your comments pretty much encapsulated why I enjoy the Warhammer 40k setting so much. There's no happy ending. Or, to put it another way, even the most marginal characters might be lauded as heroes if they exhibit a shred of goodwill and decency. A setting like the 40k-verse is one that's in dire need of heroes.

  6. My only cavil with your post would be to point out that "rugged individualism" is a species of pessimism as well, albeit a pessimism not about the world (or history) but about human nature. There is, or at least was, part of the American character that is deeply pessimistic about the capacity of men acting in groups not to make matters worse, thus necessitating that one do things for oneself.

    Still, a good post.

  7. Eek, pessimism.
    Particularly liked comparison of D&D against WFRP as cotton against silk. Very astute (though I'll still take D&D most of the time, I need to be in the mood for WHFRP. Which I guess just strengthens the analogy, becaue as nice as silk is, I'd hate to wear it every day.)

  8. I've noted this strain of ennui in stuff produced by Brits myself. (Like Douglas Adams, for example. Hilarious and clever, but there is a strong undercurrent of "oh what's the point of it all".) I suppose I fall into the American steriotype of the optimist, and tend to get a little impatient with it. Dude, if you think digital watches are a bad idea, don't wear one...

    Truth is, far as I see it, nothing but bad endings is as skewed as nothing but happy endings. You go from one to the other and back again. That's life. Stuff ends, stuff begins. Etc. Etc. (Sorry if this is too fortune cookie.)

    I'm also with you on the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay/D&D comparison. I've got friends who pretty much only want to play WFR, so I don't game with them often. I just can't get into the world Warhammer sets out. It's too negative for me.

    For me, wretchedness and misery isn't my idea of escapism. I guess exploring a worse world in your fantasy helps you be mindful of how good you've got it in reality. That's cool, but not my bag.

    Or perhaps embracing grimness somehow is intended to deflect the idea of escapism. Smacks of "They're not dolls, they're "Action Figures"." to me, but again, I'm can't speak for anybody else. I fly my freak flag proudly.

    You wanna play a medieval boil farmer who loses fights with starving rats instead of an awesome half elf fighter thief ninja magic user, then rock on with your bad self...

  9. Chris: Yup, loss of empire, social upheavel and de-industrialisation has a huge ammount to do with it, but I also think you can't underestimate the impact of WWI on both the British and the European psyche. Much of the art that came before 1914 was Romantic and optimistic; what came after was cynical and very unsure of itself. This is true of the US too (the modernists such as Hemingway, Stevens and Dos Passos had something of it) but to a much lesser extent.

    Anyway I completely forgot about 2000AD, which when I think about it is another great example. The British fantasy pentangle maybe?

    Josef: Even to this day there's something really creepy about that book. A shame White Dwarf still doesn't put out D&D related stuff.

    Zach: Nice post, and I agree with a lot of it, but I also think the impact of the wars of the 20th century had a bigger impact on Europe too. It's not just that Europe is somehow culturally less removed from the dark/middle-ages (which it is), it's also that the entire continent was utterly devastated twice in the space of 30 years.

    S. S. CFA: Heh. You know I've never read any Russian fantasy, but as a big fan of Russian lit I certainly agree that such a label would be useful - if only for warnings about length... ;)

    Patrick: And even those heroes can only hope to stem the tide for a while. I like that a lot.

    James: That's true, of course, but I think rugged individualism is more immediately optimistic in that it is at root an enabling philosophy: government might not get it right but that's okay becase individuals can. You can contrast this to the Churchillian view that every form of government is bad but hey, democracy is the least bad so we might as well go along with that... You can't get much less optimistic than that.

    Rach: Of course, WHFRP is only silk for doing Warhammer. D&D is silk when it comes to doing D&D. Horses for courses. ;)

    Big Fella: All very good points, and I definitely wouldn't want to suggest Warhammer is for everyone. I will say, though, that you also have to realise that there's a heck of a lot of gallows humour in the setting, which goes a long way to alleviating the gloom. And maybe it's the masochist in me, but the idea of being a boil farmer fighting rats is kind of appealing. I'm wired that way: I want my escapism bleak. Then again that only applies to the RPG; Warhammer the battle game is a different kettle of fish.

    Anyway, thanks for commenting, because it's always nice to discover new art. Your stuff is great.

  10. Gallows humor can go a long way to leaven the bleakness. (For me, I think Gamma World is where I get my fix of busted crutch gags, but I think it's still a more American slapstick brand of nasty, of the throw the pin and keep the grenade variety of bleak.)

    I think my reaction is more toward folks who go for the bleak and misplace the humor. I will acknowldege, in a flimsy attempt to stay on topic, that the Brits are masters of striking the right blend of wry humor and pathos.

    As much as I don't personally enjoy the negatively toned fluff of the Warhammer and WH40K tabletop wargames, it makes all kinds of sense. It's a WARgame. Of COURSE in the future there's nothing but war. Birthday parties and picnics ain't gonna move pricy boxes of pewter off the shelves.

    Finally, thanks kindly for stopping by my site and taking a look around, pardon the dust and cobwebs. I really appreciate it.

  11. I would like to point out that this British taste for despairing RPG setting is also evindenced by the extreme popularity of Call of Cthulhu in her majesty's country.

    The award-wining and most popular CoC fan site online was done by a couple of blokes from Bradford

  12. As for British Pessimism, Americans, or at least this American, have always found it slightly amusing. Almost an affectation in reaction to the equally affected US individualism.

    It's also important to note that many of the rugged individualists in American fantasy and sci-fi lit aren't really good guys, merely individualist to a fault. They take the fourth option in "lead, follow, or get out of the way," which is knock everybody else out of the way if they aren't immediately useful.

  13. I'd agree completely with what the games say about their respective societies. I read once that D&D perfectly embodied many of the ideals of American suburban capitalism: self-improvement and redefinition, teamwork, there's always wealth and success for those brave enough to try for it, and the only way to achieve much is to risk much.

  14. Great post, as usual. I find it interesting that the Warhammer following here in the states seems to be strongest in Texas, the state that has the least in common with european civility.

  15. I find it interesting that the Warhammer following here in the states seems to be strongest in Texas, the state that has the least in common with european civility.

    Depends on what you mean by "civility". And what will really blow your noodle are the British ex-pats, like Michael Moorcock, who settle in Texas.

  16. Hamlet: In the company of Americans a lot of British people revert to the pessimistic/sarcastic stereotype, but believe me, we're like that with each other too, except perhaps slightly less so!

    Trollsmyth: Yeah, D&D is very much rooted in the protestant work ethic, I think.

    lokipan: Is it really most popular in Texas? I didn't know that. Maybe it's just because Texans, like Brits, love a good war? Actually I've met a few Texans here in Japan, and they've always been cool people.

  17. Edsan: Most of the writers who developed the Cthulu mythos were British too I think. One of them, a guy called Ramsay Campbell, is the father of a childhood friend.

  18. Most of the writers who developed the Cthulu mythos were British too I think.

    Ramsey Campbell is the only significant one in terms of carrying on the philosophical premises of HPL himself. Brian Lumley wrote a lot of Mythos-inspired fiction too, but it's mostly pulp doggerel that perpetuates and expands upon the worst aspects of Derleth.

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  20. Completely wrong about JRRT and Middle and Earth- a classic example of seeing what one wants to see (by looking at trees instead of the forest on purpose).

    In the end- Evil loses, the faithfull of Mankind joins the One while the Elves/Dwarves and the Valar remake a new and perfect Middle Earth.

    As for GW and WH- yeah. It's want you say. Just don't drag that which isn't into it.

  21. Gleichman: Completely wrong about JRRT and Middle and Earth- a classic example of seeing what one wants to see (by looking at trees instead of the forest on purpose).Not really - I am looking at the forest - i.e. the Lord of the Rings taken in context of the Silmarillion, the appendices to The Return of the King, Tolkien's letters, and the miscellaneous posthumous writings.

    Taken as a whole the overwhelming theme is in my opinion one of goodness and beauty being slowly eroded over time. Tolkien himself said that he considered his work to be first and foremost about Death.

    But people can take what they will from works of fiction - that's surely their value. So if you want to take from LOTR a happy ending then by all means do so.

  22. In the end- Evil loses, the faithfull of Mankind joins the One while the Elves/Dwarves and the Valar remake a new and perfect Middle Earth.I agree that evil loses, but the elves leave Middle Earth for the lands in the West. I'm not sure where you get the "perfect Middle Earth" either, since what follows is the Age of Man, which is our world.

  23. @trollsmyth: Check out Morgoth's Ring- which carries the history pass 'the age of man'. The recreation of Middle Earth (and mankind's leaving of it- along with the death of Morgoth) is found there.

    @noisms: Death was called the "Gift of Man", if you can't understand why it was a gift (and considered bad only by those fallen to darkness)- you have no clue about the meaning of Middle Earth at all.

  24. Huh... Now I'll probably pick it up out of curiosity. I'm curious how that squares with the history of the Red Book as outlined in the appendices of RotK.

  25. @trollsmyth: It squares fine.

    One must remember that the 'Red Book' doesn't contain all of history- but rather contains what a few hobbits knew/learned about history. Much is missing, especially 4th age and after. It's a subset.

    Taken as hole, the concepts of WH is seen as little more than lies of evil that too many bought into. These works are as night and day to each other.

    In WH evil wins for there is no good. In Middle Earth, evil is destroyed completely after great trials and hardship- as Eru declare it would be the 'day' Middle Earth was created.

    It you want to dig into all of it, you have some work ahead of you. Morgoth's Ring is the ten volume in the set on the history and background of Middle Earth.

  26. Gleichman: It was also called "The Doom of Man", if I recall. Death is ambiguous. What isn't ambiguous is the overall sense of loss embodied in the entire work.

  27. @noisms: 'Doom' as bad by Sauron, and those who fell for his lies.

    Did you even read the books?

  28. Gleichman: Your last comment doesn't even make sense, and your arrogant tone suggests you aren't interested in anything other than a childish attempt to somehow prove your superior knowledge of Tolkien. If I need arrogant nitwits spouting off at me I can get that at Kindly don't post comments in my blog unless you intend to take a polite and respectful tone.

  29. I get your argument - though I disagree with the loss of empire bit, mainly because what is refered to as the British Empire was hardly the great monolith it is made out to be and really only lasted about 80 years - 20 years at it's greatest extent between the wars.

    And I agree with the sentiment that writers reflect there own times. And indeed games designers - Warhammer is a product of the 1980's, and the races do to an extent reflect characteristics of British regional politics - dwarfs are supposed to have Yorkshire accents, Orcs London accents and Elves are southern softies from the Home Counties.

    But the problem I have is with the notion that one race or another in the Warhammer world can be defined as good and evil. Because in reality the definition is largely a description of which races are notionally fighting with the Empire - which is in anyway based on the Holy Roman Empire. Therefore it would be just as valid to argue that the game is pro-Catholic - in the sense that the Empire are the good guys.

    I see the Warhammer world as being what the marketing men would call anti-hero - in that there is no real sense of good and evil. The player makes a choice as to what race to pick and then proceeds in the hobby from there - the rules might say they are playing on the side of evil, but then the rules say that Bretonnia is on the side of good, and it can hardly be argued that Bretonnian society is the sort of place most people would want to live in.

    On the D&D front I suppose you could make a couple of ironic points as to why it represents American society.

    Firstly - you are the self appointed good guy - who goes around grabbing gold from whoever you can kill and blaming them for having their lair on your gold.

    And rather like America the world is wonderful 99% of the time until some natural event or another comes along and wipes you off the face of the earth.

  30. I'd say that D&D is itself very much about decay and pessimism, albeit not as overtly.
    The assumed setting of most D&D games is a world littered with the ruins of an older and superior culture (or many) which the players loot for gold and magic items they don't fully understand. Adventurers are very much likely to die (depending on the edition) and perhaps most importantly, humanity has little sway over the world- elves are more connected, dragons are more powerful, etc. Cosmic forces have little interest in individuals.
    I agree with the article as a whole, but I don't think there is as much of a dichotomy between British Fantasy/Warhammer and American/D&D fantasy as you have suggested here.

  31. Ah...reading this post off a link from your 1500th blog post.

    Yes British Fantasy had it's own distinct twist to, and the Warhammer universe is truly one of those fantastic other world creations.

    So many memories...

  32. This is my own humble riff on Warhammer and I'm only really here by following the links from M&M 1500th post. No necromancy is intended.

    I'm of the opinion that the warhammer universe isn't quite as cut and dried as peeps think, that for all the chaos bluster there is another possibility, namely that you shouldn't believe all the chaos hype you read and hear.

    Now I'm old enough to remember the release of original WHFRPG and loved its mix of low level fantasy and huge background conspiracies, D&D meets Call Of Cthulhu, which I believe was quite deliberate and a bit of a master-stroke all things considered.

    However enough peeps, fans and creators alike, took the cthulhu influence to heart (and maybe the final Elric novel while they were at it) and decided that the gospel of warhammer was to be CHAOS TRIUMPHANT!

    And of course it must be true because it gets enough fanbois all excited that it's all they ever talk about BUT...

    .... But what if the fluff is just eagerly promoted wishful thinking, propaganda if you will, clamoured at length in the hope that enough peeps will believe the lie in order for it to become true?

    Three things give credence to this:

    One: warhammer history has the foul stench of chaos hanging around fantasy Europe for ten thousand years, always seeking to corrupt a few souls before breaking out of the North pole like a manic Santa Claus every few years, causing ructions before overextending & dying back.

    Invasive? Yes. Dangerous? Yes. The end of all things? Hardly. In fact, more of an anthromorphised bacteria than anything else. Nothing a bit of bleach, clean living and cold iron wouldn't fix.

    Two, every non chaos warhammer army recognises this and either outright opposes chaos (men, elves, dwarfs, lizard men) or ignores/uses chaos to their own ends (everyone else)

    Three, the rules of the game, written and balanced to allow gamers to collect and play any warhammer army, safe in the knowledge that any gamer with a fair understanding and application of them and a few lucky dice rolls can defeat any army with any other army and not waste their time and money are the reality of the warhammer existence and as such chaos, far from being the omnipotent ruinous power in nowt but another sink in the war gaming kitchen.