There is an ongoing debate that most of us will be familiar with. It comes up at the office, it is especially prevalent at the local café, and it leads to fights at Comic Con. When it comes to coffee… how dark is dark enough? Some would argue coffee should stay in its natural state: black. Others - whom I shall refer to as heretics - choose to put milk in coffee, making it essentially tea. As you may have guessed, I like mine black.
All of this to say, I like my fantasy like I like my coffee: so dark it makes me contemplate the inescapable and all-encompassing vastness of the void, putting into sharp contrast my own meagre existence, a tiny speck of dust, insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and like most life in the Universe, essentially meaningless.
Welcome to Warhammer, kids.
Here are 4 reasons why Warhammer Fantasy is a… fantastic setting.
1) This Isn’t Your (Grand)daddy’s Fantasy
Are you tired of classic good vs evil tropes? Do you feel like your medieval fantasy setting isn’t quite apocalyptic enough? Ever find yourself thinking “these elves would be a lot more interesting if they looked more like a Norwegian death metal band?” Well, have I got the setting for you.
Warhammer Fantasy - or the Old World, for the setting specifically - manages to at once be familiar and derivative, while also original and different to everything else in this genre. You can’t call yourself a geek if you don’t know what an elf is. Orcs, dwarfs, trolls... these are all familiar to you as concepts. The great thing about Warhammer is that it takes these established tropes and builds them into a solid, interconnected web of factions that have complicated relationships with one another - and many an excuse to go to war against each other.
And all the while, the gods of capital ‘C’ Chaos want to literally watch the world burn.
In the simple sense, it’s Tolkien - but everyone’s an asshole.
If one were a little unkind, one might describe the setting of Middle Earth as a little naive, or at the very least, too black and white. In terms of morality, the Old World is definitely a greyscale, one that someone’s gone and spilled a bunch of Nuln Oil over (hobbyists know what I’m talking about); it’s all distinctively dark.
There are no “good” people. And, with the exception of Chaos and verminous Skaven, there is no real “evil”. Just when you think someone’s gone and done something unbelievably, irredeemably evil, someone’s already done something worse. There is conflict, and in conflict, there is victory and defeat. And depending on which side the pendulum swings towards, that faction is right on that particular day.
If anyone enters the forest of Athel Loren, realm of the Wood Elves, they are killed, skinned alive, and their corpses left to feed carrion. Are the Wood Elves evil? They are defending their realm, and when you remember those same humans will set fire to these forests and destroy the homes of ancient spirits, you have to think… maybe they had it coming.
Vlad von Carstein is a vampire, a ruthless overlord who will enslave a populace, turn their dead into a horde of zombies for him to wage war - but he does it to defend his territory and to claim that which was denied so long ago - his rightful (at least to him it is) title of Elector of the Empire. Cruel, but then, he’s more or less a regular feudal lord… with a little help from necromancy.
And Nagash - a priest who was obsessed with conquering death, in a culture who was obsessed with conquering death, and he murdered, lied, backstabbed, and dark magicked his way to obtaining immortality… thus conquering death. So he immediately begins to dish it out, like it’s promises on election day. Basically, Ramses but with actual necromancy. And, naturally, he wants to kill everyone, and raise their souls as his slaves.
Ok, Nagash is a bit of dick.
2) Everything Is Turned Up To 11
So the Old World has everything, but with a spin. That might be original enough to launch a product of minis and call it a day. But what truly sets Warhammer apart is how everything is absurdly exaggerated, whilst remaining - if not entirely believable - coherent in its own universe.
Dwarfs are known to hold a grudge. Warhammer dwarfs have turned it into literal bookkeeping. Their king rides into battle on a war palanquin carried on the shoulders of his warriors, with a giant tome containing every wrong, sleight, and heinous crime committed against his people. He is aptly named Thorgrim Grudgebearer.
The elves are noble and haughty. And in the Old World, they are a xenophobic, decadent and dying species, whose noble courts are ruled by infighting and backstabbing, hidden Chaos worship, and their noble prince turns into a bloodthirsty madman.
Furthermore, the elves are split into three factions: the depraved and xenophobic high elves - corrupt and dying. The Dark Elves, murderous slavers whose king and his sorceress mother would fit right on the cover of a heavy metal album. And the Wood Elves who will tear out your heart and sacrifice it to their forest gods if you step on a fern.
The lizardfolk are not just bipedal saurians you might encounter in caves. They have a sprawling empire, and are the most ancient of species. They guard life on this planet, and they have a grand plan - one that probably involves genocide of all other species.
Chaos are the lovechild of Abrahamic legend and Lovecraftian horror. I mean, there’s no “love” in that, but… you know. And yet, you could argue they’re not evil in the same way entropy isn’t evil. They are a dark mirror of this world’s own follies, come back into our “reality” to exact the toll of everyone’s own evil.
And, my favourites, the Tomb Kings - what if Egypt had actual necromancy. What if the pharaohs could actually become immortal, albeit undead? How would that society look? How would a culture whose sovereigns are immortal (and possibly insane) actually function?
The great thing about it all, which also sounds strange when you say it, is that it all makes sense. All factions and species are interconnected, and have got beef with each other. Dark Elves are a splinter faction of the High Elves whose king is the rightful heir to the kingdom of all elves. A dark elf sorceress gave Nagash the secret to necromancy, who created a kingdom of undead, one of whom became the first vampire, whose vampire lover moved North, where he became a count in the Empire, who are sometimes allied with the dwarfs, who fight the Wood Elves, who are another faction from the same kingdom of elves, and so on.
This is complex faction map with so much history and nuance that it should honestly be studied in political science classes.
3) The World Is Always On A Razor’s Edge.
While the post-apocalyptic genre has become established and has blossomed of late, there is a slightly less numerous style of world-ending fiction: the pre-apocalypse. It’s more difficult to do right, because if I may paraphrase an “established truth” of literature and filmography: if the world’s been ending for too long, it gets boring.
Likewise, there’s an inherent problem with grimdark (and I’m proud to have made it this far without using the word): if it’s all too bleak with no hope, then what’s the point?
Warhammer exists in a fine balance of shining heroism that stands out against the dark background all the more for how striking the contrast is. And with the world being as insane as it is, you might find yourself rooting for someone like Malekith (not the Disney one), the exiled prince of the elves whose civil war to claim his rightful throne left his kingdom in tatters, the elves forever divided and hateful of each other. I won’t say #MalekithDidNothingWrong, but the man’s got a point - he was betrayed. So when he finally got his throne back, I thought it was well deserved, if bittersweet. Plus, he’s a stone cold badass.
And that’s the other thing, with the world being so insane and in such constant and extreme danger, heroics are all the more impressive. Take the Empire, one of the human factions, or “what if the Holy Roman Empire had wizards”. Day to day life in Reikland, one of its richest provinces… is not easy, folks.
If it’s not ratfolk burrowing under the city to explode (literally) into the streets, it’s undead invading the burgh, or maybe it’s beastmen. If it’s not them, it’s Chaos. Daemons showing up everywhere, crazed followers of the corrupt gods invading from the North. Yir auld ma’s turned into a plague daemon. Everything is insane.
Yet the Empire endures.
4) You’ve Got A Bit Of Everything.
Besides amazing, inspiring, scary and insane, the word I’d use to describe the setting is: complete.
You can do anything.
This is why it is perfect for a tabletop RP campaign. There is dark mystery: exploring abandoned dwarf forges, going through ancient ruins, venturing into Sylvania and trying not to become a zombie-slave. And there’s grim horror in the land of the Tomb Kings or the Vampire Counts, and let’s not forget about the Lovecraftian monstrosities conjured by Chaos.
There is thrilling action and high fantasy adventure. Dragons’ lairs to explore, villages and cities to save (they constantly need saving, after all), ancient secrets that can save or doom the world - or moderately delay its inevitable demise, at least.
Combine this with the rich history built into this world, and the complex political map mentioned above and you’ve got a thriving, living (if diseased and dying) world to explore in a setting that is both familiar and like nothing else out there. Except maybe Age of Sigmar, but I’m still bitter about that.
Against this backdrop of constant danger and madness, there are those stories that inspire. A detachment of Reikland gunners holding the line while civilians flee a beastmen horde - that’s awesome. The dwarfs locking shields in a last stand against endless Skaven - that’s heartbreaking. Thorgrim getting vengeance for those deaths - inspiring. Durthu, a kind and ancient tree spirit is burned to a husk by the dwarfs, and turns into a gigantic, perpetually charred rage-monster - that’s tragic. Malekith the Witch King kneeling before an orc warboss in order to get the challenge-loving greenskins to attack his enemies - and, oh, by the way, all this to save the world - that’s amazing.
Grimdark doesn’t have to be constantly depressing and relentlessly hopeless. In an insane world, look to the mad ones to lead the way. Because against a tide of unrelenting Chaos, against constant attacks by monsters, mutants, daemons, and hordes of crazed bloodthirsty lunatics, who else could stand against the tide - but the utterly mad, and the truly heroic?
Anderson is a swarm of bees in a skin suit who have attained sentience and decided to infiltrate society as a writer. Their hobbies include: kendo, painting miniatures, scheduling Warhammer and D&D. When they’re not writing, they’re studying anthropology (to better understand humans).
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games