Questions like “What truly defines Warhammer?” or “What are the underlying themes that shape an unmistakably Warhammer experience?” are quite challenging to answer.
These are the types of questions I face on a regular basis, as they form one of the key methods to evaluate content for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. One of my core responsibilities is to ensure that the products we develop uphold to the spirit of the Warhammer world that Games Workshop has created, and thus I spend a lot my time trying to answer these types of questions.
The short answer is: It all depends.
Wow. That’s incredibly underwhelming, and not very helpful, is it? But looking back at the questions, it’s an incredibly subjective topic. After all, an individual’s perception of what is intrinsically Warhammer is strongly influenced by his path to the roleplaying game.
For players who were introduced to WFRP after playing the Warhammer Fantasy Battles tabletop game, they could very well have a different view of what Warhammer means. Epic battles, powerful magics, massive monsters. The clash of brave humans, noble elves or stalwart dwarfs against the forces of chaos, greenskin hordes or skaven armies. A greater sense of strategy, military tactics and risk.
Players who were first exposed to Games Workshop’s fantasy themes through boardgames like Talisman or Chaos Marauders have a completely different view. They may see a stronger presence of chaos and unpredictability, have more exposure to the humourous tone implied in the setting, and see huge changes of fortune as part of the core experience.
Folks who played computer games like Shadow of the Horned Rat or Dark Omen may have gotten a taste of the tabletop meta-game, coupled with a frantic pace, escalating difficulties, increasing tension and a different sense of the scale and magnitude of the forces driving events in the Old World.
A lot of players are now coming to WFRP through Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, the MMORPG based on the Warhammer Fantasy setting. The game definitely pits the archetypal rivals against each other, with the fate of the Old World hanging in the balance, and offers a very different view of the setting.
Even the various literature provides dramatically different interpretations. Just look at my three favorite Warhammer Fantasy novels: Jack Yeovil’s Drachenfels creates a much different feel for the setting than Nathan Long’s Valnir’s Bane and the Blackhearts adventures -- which are in turn quite different than the long running saga of Gotrek & Felix.
Yet as different as all these media are, to me they are all still firmly rooted in what it means to be Warhammer. There are definitely some common denominators there…
For me, each of these media offers a vibrant, dynamic look at a gritty, harsh reality that is at the same time both eerily familiar yet stridently different. Warhammer challenges us by juxtaposing the mundane and the bizarre, infusing grim horror with dark humour, and offering an experience with its own unique bite and edge.
But the short answer, “It all depends,” really is a big part of the long answer, too. What makes Warhammer feel so distinct and special has a lot to do with the people that play games or read books based on the Warhammer setting. Everyone helps shape, share and influence the setting based on their experiences.
Ultimately, the most important questions is -- what does Warhammer mean to you? What are the fundamental elements that make something Wahammer rather than simply traditional fantasy?