Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Threat Within

There is a strong thread running through Warhammer: that of corruption from within. This gives it a thematic strength that is rare in fantasy settings. Where most such settings tend to be exercises in imagination, Warhammer feels like it is genuinely about something - the conflict between Man and Self.

The first and most important element of this is, of course, Chaos - a force which corrupts from within and thereby destroys. Each of the major Chaos Gods tempts mankind in different ways, drawing people away from their essential humanity and transforming them into something baser, by playing on their fears, hopes and instincts. Khorne does it through awakening rage and bloodlust, Nurgle through despair, Tzeentch through the lust for knowledge and Slaanesh through plain old lust. People are drawn to their worship from an inherent weakness, a chink in their armour, and are taken - like those who cry out to Nurgle to protect them from plague, or who give themselves to Tzeentch in return for hidden knowledge. Chaos is a constant threat which seethes below human society; everybody must be on their guard lest they become tempted. This sense of danger at the roots of mankind is personified by the Skaven, a clandestine race of rat-men who live right under the foundations of human society, unknown and unsuspected but constantly gnawing, spreading disease and pestilence and gradually gathering their strength for the moment when they strike.

I likened the Empire to the USSR under Stalin in my post the other day, and I like that analogy - the difference, of course, being that the threats which faced the USSR were mostly made up and trumped up, whereas those facing the Empire are all too real. By coincidence at the moment I'm reading Orlando Figes' The Whisperers, a massive collection of oral testimony from people who lived through the Stalin years. The sense that foreign spies were everywhere and that anti-Bolshevik 'cosmopolitans' and 'class enemies' were lurking in the shadows around every corner pervaded the Soviet regime in its early years (though the real danger for most people was in fact the NKVD): the struggles which families of those accused of being 'class enemies' went through could well be compared to those of the familes of traitors given over to Chaos. Warhammer is like a 'what-if' scenario which imagines what a world would be like in which the lies of totalitarian dictatorships were actually true. Except transported to an incredibly baroque and blackly humourous fantasy setting.

This sort of thing is something I'd like to play with with Yoon-suin. Not the straight plundering of Chaos or Skaven or class-enemies, but the creation of some sense of an all-pervading and ever-present danger threatening to consume everything from within. Something to make players feel as though they have to keep a constant guard on their own behaviour lest they take a wrong step somewhere and find themselves slipping into something which might endanger their immortal soul. But which at the same time wouldn't mean an ending, just as the man who gives himself to the pleasures of Slaanesh loses his humanity but gains something Other.


  1. Interesting idea. You'd need to give it an oriental spin, of course. I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with your sources to offer a concrete suggestion, and just having got Carcosa in the mail yesterday has my brain full of all sorts of cthulhic horrors. Though with the prevalence of your mullosk men, perhaps the great threat is a Death in Venice-like dissolution, where the weakening of discipline and struggle leads to an all-to-real loss of backbone, as well as other internal musculature.

  2. You're selling me on Warhammer, with some really interesting and insightful posts. I missed WH when I was gaming first - it was about three years 'behind me', if you know what I mean. So, noob that I am, what would you advise me to pick up if I were to get the flavour of the system?

  3. Given your previous post on Warhammer as British vs. other games as American, doesn't the idea that it models itself on the USSR rather than, say, The Troubles ring a bit hollow? You don't need to go as far as Russia in the 80s to see an analogy for the enemy within - just Irish people in London. Particularly since Irish people have been derided as chaotic and ill-disciplined in England for years. The modern representation of travellers is just an extension of that.

    While the cold war was a significant part of English ideological life during the 80s, I wouldn't say it had a big role to play in the development of an English sense of insidious defeat. That role has always been assigned to the Foreigner Within, and to the working classes. And the quintessential destructive foreigner within in 80s england was your average nail-bombing terrorist.

    Having said that... I like the Warhammer ideas about the enemy within, etc. Unfortunately the only time I played warhammer, everyone's character was completely useless, and everyone I played with said this is a common trait of Warhammer. I felt strangely ... emasculated. And then I was eviscerated by a ratman.

  4. sorry, that last post was faustusnotes. stupid gmail login...

  5. Trollsmyth: You know, that's such a weird idea, I kind of like it. Maybe over time there's a danger of gradual mollusc-isation...

    Viriconium: I'd just buy either the core Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules or, if you don't fancy the minis, getting some of the flavour books for that. Or you could just get the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay core rules. Fantasy Battle and Fantasy Roleplay are slightly different in tone, because for obvious reasons the company focuses most of its energy on the battle game - so that's where you'll get the most detail and most up-to-date stuff.

    faustusnotes: Interesting. Although even during the height of the Troubles Britain really wasn't all that bad - outside of Northern Ireland. There was some paranoia and some warnings about suspicious objects; occasionally you'd hear about hunger strikes in the Maze prison on the TV news, but that was about it. I was living in Liverpool during the main years of IRA activity, and even that most Irish and Catholic of English cities was pretty 'normal' (without any jobs!). There wasn't an atmosphere of "the Fenians are everywhere!" I think the sense of all-pervading defeat at that time rather came from the fact that the economy was in such decay. Definitely the civil and social unrest is what sticks out in my mind, and the huge conflict between Thatcher and the unions. But that didn't have a feeling of paranoia about it - I don't think anybody seriously thought that the unions had links to the Warsaw Pact countries or anything. Having said that, it fits the bill of a nation destroying itself from within; both sides portrayed the other as driving Britain to rack and ruin.

    I think if you want to go down the all-pervading fear and paranoia route with Warhammer, a place like the USSR (maybe Chile under Pinochet or Argentina during the Dirty War) is probably a better model. Although, of course, you could base it on England during the 17th Century, with Catholic fifth-columnists lurking behind every item of furniture - waiting to be burned at the stake.

    I rather like the way Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay forces you to be a bit useless. It actually fits in with the roots of the game in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, where you're not really supposed to identify with your army in the same way that a role player identifies with their character. There's a strong sense of masochism and humour in seeing your own cannon misfiring and blowing up, or your own night goblin fanatics turning around and carving a swathe through your best unit. Similarly, in the role playing game, there's a kind of enjoyment in watching your character perform like utter crap against a snotling.

  6. Maybe that sense of collapsing England drove the general feeling of warhammer, but the authors focussed on an external, European model so it could be more interesting (or less personal) and fantastic for the players? I really don't think many people in England saw any risk of an enemy within from the USSR (certainly not the way they do now with Islam). But I agree with you about the general sense of society eating itself that came along with the miners' strike, greenham common etc.

    There was a pamphlet published in the 80s by the Tory council near Greenham common, entitled "at least cruise is clean" that basically likened peace demonstrators to Skaven. Hmmm...

  7. I've held onto WFRP 1e for the sole purpose of using it for The Enemy Within campaign, should I ever get the opportunity to run it again. It's not "sandbox gaming" -- pretty railroady in parts, in fact -- but it's one of my favorite things in the gaming universe.

  8. Hey! Been loving your thematic exploration of the WH universe, but as someone who was never into the big minis combat game, I've always written off WH as being "not for me", despite all its lovable weirdness.

    But the WHRPG could be a different story. If you have any experience with WHRPG - the system, not the setting - esp. versus all the different D&D flavors, I would dearly love to read your take on it. Really want to know about overall playability and what kind of fun goes on in the tactical space - - -

    d21 Smite

  9. Scott: I almost never play published adventures or campaigns, so I've never done The Enemy Within. I'll have to run it some time, since it's held in such high esteem.

    Smite: I'll put up a post on that matter tomorrow or the day after. ;)