I discovered the world of Warhammer and Warhammer 40K through my son. Warhammer 40K was launched just over 25 years ago. To mark the anniversary I have written a feature about its world of table top fantasy wargaming for the BBC Website Magazine. To research it I travelled to the Warhammer Hall of Fame at Games Workshop’s headquarters in Nottingham and through word of mouth met some interesting wargamers — young and old — via Twitter. Thanks to all who took the trouble to email me. Below I’m putting up some of the full interviews that formed the basis for the BBC piece with X men comic writer Kieron Gillen and games creator and illustrator Gary Chalk, and also from Games Workshop’s CEO, Mark Wells. The opinions expressed here are the interviewees'; not mine. I have also written about Warhammer in my column for last week’s Big Issue. If you missed it and want to know why Emily Bronte would have loved Warhammer and table top fantasy gaming.
Kieron Gillen (Writer, including X Men comics ) @KieronGillen
I was a Midlands boy in the 1980s. I fear I had no choice. (My old line being “Warhammer is basically what geeky kids did instead of heroin. It’s about as expensive, and similarly bad for you”.)
Got into it as a young teenager, in the traditional fantasy crush. Must have been about 12-13, so we’re looking at 86-87. Played through secondary school, and all the period spin off games (Blood Bowl, Space-Hulk, the Epic Stuff, etc). Plus the Role Playing Game. I played Dwarves and the Imperial Guards. I played the Imperial Guard before they had tanks. That’s how horrifically OG I am.
Drifted out of Warhammer as the nineties continued, as I went to university and spent a lot of time slinking around nightclubs instead of dungeons. Circa 2002 or so, I found myself writing my first underground comics. Discover that GW do a Warhammer comic. In the process of pitching it, myself and a mate sort of have a Warhammer Relapse and play a bunch of 40k with each other. I paint and collect a small Necron army.
Drift out again.
One of my first work-for-hire pieces of work is a gig for BOOM writing a 4-issue warhammer comic. This reignites my crush on the Skaven – Warhammer Fantasy’s single great relatively-unique creation – and start talking about buying some. My now-wife buys a box of 20 as a joke for Christmas. I take it as permission.
Over the next few years collect and paint a skaven army. And now have some Elves.
And only now, after 2-3 years could I consider playing a game with the things. I – er – played one with myself to see if I got the rules.
(At the same time, over the last year, I started a Warhammer Fantasy campaign with some writer friends of mine. Which is me riffing on the Mythos with my diseased adult mind, and basically doing Klein-esque Disaster-Capitalism plots but set in the Warhammer universe.)
In other words, I’m basically someone with that ingrained love of the mythos and having an agreeably relaxing dabble in it. I found myself at a position in life where basicaly almost everything I did was work. I played a videogame? I could earn money off it. I read a comic? I’m deconstructing it. The joy of painting about 150 Skaven was that it really was absolutely useless. This would never make me money. This is literally something no-one cares about. It’s entirely self-indulgent and relaxing, and is an odd thing to have in my life.
Since I’ve mainly been painting (though I mentioned the FRP, and there’s a bunch of warhammer-themed boardgames I’ve played in the period) it’s arguably not strictly Warhammer. But the thing is that Warhammer, rather than a wargame, always describes itself as a “Hobby Game”. Devotes call Warhammer “The Hobby”. It’s basically a holistic thing. You collect the troops. You paint the troops. You play the games. And different people gravitate towards different parts of it.
The physicality of warhammer is a key thing too. That’s something that simply isn’t recreated. The satisfaction of looking at ranks of badly daubed Skaven and knowing they’re yours and you made them, in a real way. It’s absolutely the part of the brain that made other generations make model trains. I also see a trend of serious videogame guys sort of stepping away from videogames and moving towards boardgame material, seemingly a little out of disgust with mainstream games, and a little out of interest in the physical real. I *also* see this in comics, with a growth of interest in the physical stuff – looking at what *can’t* be replicated in a videogame, and building on that.
What I find interesting is that seeing that a bunch of people I know in their early 30s have sort of casually gravitated back towards it in a similar way. A music-friend of mine describes it like this – in that they’re a bunch of people who spent their 20s doing the band and pop culture thing and now really feel “fuck it”, and have nothing left to prove. When I hear them talking about that, it feels like “Yeah, let’s retire from trying to be cool”.
Which is quite cute. A self-serving description, admittedly, and I suspect not particularly wide-spread, but cute.
What you say about the gamers getting younger is true… but I’m not sure how true. As I said, I was 12 when I was first getting into it, and part of it for me was that it was distinctly forbidden-Fruit-y. The Warhammer Universe is full of genuinely nasty transgressive stuff, and it’s that being toned down in the 90s which creates the flicker of bitterness. It’s been dialled back up a little since then, but it’s never returned to the genuinely Blasphemous stuff of the Realm-Of-Chaos era. But, really, it was always pretty teen-y. And complaining about that seems to be missing the point. If you continue to be into teen pop and go to the gigs, you can’t really complain that the place is packed full of bloody teenagers. In my experience, most older players generally form their own little sets of folk.
So much is really from the design and the world and all that. It’s a hilariously OTT maximalist universe, at a operatic pitch. There’s some people who think less is more. Warhammer, conversely, believes that more is always more. That’s what “more” means. The key difference between Warhammer and Warcraft, a universe that’s clearly a little derived from it. In Warcraft, it’s made so there’s no bad guys. Everyone is basically good, except the enemies (who you don’t play). In Warhammer, there are no good guys. They’re all bad. It’s just a case that some are more monstrous than others. It’s a universe that’s simultaneously nihilistic and joyous. It’s incredibly British in that way.
One of my fave bits of the lore was the Old World, where Warhammer Fantasy is set. It’s all detailed and populated, but one area that’s barely ever been touch is the UK-analogue Albion. It’s always offhandedly dismissed as “Rainy and cloudy and nothing interesting ever happens there”. The core of self-deprecation there made me smile.
I currently collect Skaven and High Elves. The Skaven is abstractly my army, but I thought it may be nice to have a secondary army I could fight them against. If I ever decided to play a game. Also, I hate Elves on a “Nazis-with-pointy-ears” basis, so don’t mind losing. I have a terrible urge to collect a Sisters of Battle 40k army, because they’re warrior nuns with flamethrowers.
Gary Chalk – Fantasy Illustrator and Games designer (including formerly Warhammer and Warhammer 40K) @garychalkpics
I used to put on demonstration games.Found it boring. Played the 1st version – 3 little books in a box with a cover. Designed by John Blanches. I Was a Games Development manager at GW about 30 yrs ago. Designed boardgames and wrote White Dwarf articles:
I designed Talisman – all original art work, and wrote Space Hulk.
Also Battle Cars and Bikes – fighting eachother in the near future (we’ve always wanted a machine gun to kill the git in front of you. It’s based on that.)
Left Games Workshop (GW) to go Lone Wolf Game books, then went as a freelance to Nott GW.
Warhammer was relatively unlimited – you could add more figures, scenery, boards to play on, as a wargame it is about resolving combat. You can give them character. It is a mix of historical wargame and fantasy role playing.
The business was eaten by Citadel miniatures which took over Warhammer. Original GW made and sold games by other manufacturers and sold many different worlds. It was all reflected and covered in White Dwarf. Eg Rune Quest, Traveller (SF) as well as own products.
It became all in house about its own products. Even ditched role play and narrowed the audience. It’s much more restricted in England – no where to buy cards. Lots of little shops that sold historical magic miniatures went out out of business.
Eyewatering prices – for what is often a small lump of plastic or lead. Not always assembled. How is that Games Workshop can charge as much as they do?
They are not selling a hobby. They are selling a craze. An addiction and craze – craft paints cost less. They have huge markups. You’re not a gamer you’re a fan. You need huge books of rules. Can’t play with someone else’s figures. The rules about their costumes are so detailed – less and less imagination being used.
The original rules were about fantasy combat, magic spells and creating character. Now the rules only work within their imaginary world, with their figures and it cuts out all other influences.
People used to invent things – Eg. Dwarf hanggliders and hot air balloons and invent rules to use them in the game. I came up with naval ships – we called the game “All the Nice Dwarves Love a Sailor”: — they were fun add ons. I wrote the rules in White Dwarf.
I wrote a scenario called the Bloodbath at Orc’s Drift. Dwarvan militia with scythes and pitchforks based on the Zulu film. The principle characters were turned into a slightly deaf elf and a dwarf. Had an alcoholic druid – none of it is possible any more.
A Dungeons and Dragons explosion happened just before Warhammer came out. It was 17-18 year old students really.
Historical games are getting older – fantasy games are getting younger. No subtlety at all. One lot of armoured guys w spikes rush at another lot of armoured guys with spikes. It’s all pain.
Gary Chalk is currently working on Tin Man games and downloads.
Mark Wells CEO of Games Workshop (interview via email)
Why does Warhammer still appeal in the age of so much online gaming?
The Warhammer Hobby is all about the collecting, painting and playing with Games Workshop’s huge range of fantasy miniatures. We support these activities with a global network of Games Workshop Hobby Centres where we show Hobbyists how to collect, paint and play with our miniatures and games, and every month we launch more new products which add to the fun and excitement. In other words, it’s no accident that Warhammer is still thriving. Its down to the passion, hard work and enthusiasm of everyone at Games Workshop.
I have been very impressed by your hobby centre staff. They seem very untypical of British retailing. Has Games Workshop got a special emphasis on customer service?
Funnily enough we don’t consider ourselves to be a retailer. Games Workshop is a manufacturer which set out to make the best fantasy miniatures in the world. We then found that the only way to offer the customer service we wanted for our Hobbyists was to provide that ourselves. We now have 400 Games Workshop Hobby Centres all over the world where our staff show Hobbyists how to collect, paint and play with our miniatures.
The reason our Hobby Centre staff are so good is because Games Workshop really does believe in the philosophy, recruit for attitude and train for skills. We recruit staff with exemplary attitudes and we train them continuously to become excellent at what they do. That philosophy applies not just in Games Workshop Hobby Centres but to our design, manufacturing, supply and support teams, where our staff are just as exceptional. It’s how you get to be the best.
What do you say to critics who say the pricing is exploitative?
That would go against everything we stand for. It’s just not in our nature.
Do you still/ did you ever play? If so, what army?
Yes I collect, paint and play armies for Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000 and Lord of the Rings. My last project was an Orc and Goblin army for a campaign weekend at Warhammer World in January. I’m currently working on a new Warhammer 40,000 army that my wife doesn’t know about yet, so let’s hope she doesn’t read this article…
ANDREW RUDDICK – 32 from Cambridge -Gamer and community manager for an app developer (featured in the BBC video) @VonPud
I played originally at 13. Got out and came back. “Relapsed” – I feel back in as an adult. The visuals grabbed me. Parents got me a boxed game.
As a 16 years old discovered beer and girls to speed money on.
About 25-26 I got back in (6 or 7 years ago) – working for a videogames company. There was all this banter about “I used to play 40K” and enthusiasm, even though we hadn’t played for aged. We started playing over lunch breaks and eventually I got into a local tournament.
As a teen I was playing 2nd edition. I came back in at 4th edition. Rules had stripped down and simplified a lot. A lot more abstract. But it made for a better game play. It had moved away from realistic capturing element, but ultimately it’s still small toy soldiers on a battle field. But in the newer edition they wanted to speed it up with better armour.
I play Space Marine – the poster boys of Warhammer 40K. The majority of armies are based on them. The whole aesthetic is v masculine. I only know 1 girl who actually plays Sisters of Battle, but several men who use them. The appeal is partly aesthetic, and partly the background universe.
It’s very rich – keeps people invovled in the hobby. I’m as interested in the law and the visuals. Girls don’t necessarily want to play girls.
PRICING? There’s lots of contention within the community on pricing policy. No logic to pricing. Partly based on worth of models within the game. There’s a very healthy 2nd hand industry. I don’t enjoy painting – to me that’s a necessary chore. I like the visuals and the art work . But there’s a great feeling when you see your mispainted little models – they’re all yours.
Books ? Absolutely love them. The No 1 appeal for me at the moment. Gaming wise I play more fantasy than 40k. But 40K far richer. Excellent stories.
Flagship novel series HORUS Heresy series – has a superb quality of writing. Set in 30th millennium – a prequel looking back 10k years . Horus Rising by Dan Abnett – has more individual characters.
They feature the ultimate bad guy – a reworking of the fall of Lucifer – turned against his father the Emperor. It successfully pulls aside the curtain of myth, as George Lucas tried and failed to do with prequel Star Wars films about Anakin turning into Darth Vader.
Crucially in Warhammer 40K there are no real good guys. The Imperium are a faceless military machine. Humanes and spacemarines who are genetically modified supersoldiers. The Sisters of Battle are ultimately religious zealots.
As factions, it’s hard to say who’se good and bad. Very real xenophobia. Company criticised or glorifying xenophobial. But it’s not advocating it.
More classic villains – Chaos Fuch – darkness incarnate. Dark Eldar – evil space elves. Tyrannids – Alien inspisred massive hive minds who want to devour everything. The Tau Empire are the closest thing to good guys. There are lots of parallels with either classic fantasy factions and TAU – who are likened to atotalitarian communist regime.
HOW DO YOU PLAY?
WH 40K is the table top equivalent to online World of Warcraft. WOW is criticised for being dumbed down/derivative, but it is many people’s entry point into table top gaming. It was for me.
Warhammer 40K offers something – a physical table top aspect . Even with all the the Wii controllers that is still a virtual interaction.
It’s like why theatre remains popular in the age of cinema. And there’s an intimacy. With table top gaming you are there. It is a HOBBY- there are stereotypes, but the vast majority don’t fit that stereotype.
The 3 KEY THINGS THAT INTEREST PEOPLE:
l. law and setting (compare Star Wars/Harry Potter – it’s a created world)
2. Visuals/ aesthetic – many people just enjoy painting and collecting. For myself for me, it’s an interesting universe with a consequent level of detachment.
3. The Game itself – a strategy game. It’s an ancient appeal. People have been playing with toy soldiers for aeons. Compare to video games –the violence is not clinical. It’s not worse than in a lot of comics and cartoons. There’s more blood, but it is fantasy imagery and violence. So much of it reflects long cultural fascination with militaristic violence, like the Iliad. I used to like Roman history. The Black Templars draw on medieval crusading armies.
It’s about odds and statistics. Dice rolling adds a random element.There is strategy and challenge. Standard tournament games – allow for 2 1/2 hrs. You can play in an hour if you use fewer models. They introduced the Apocalypse amendment – so you can play for a whole weekend. 2 players are ideal.
Stephen Turner (father of Kathryn Turner, quoted in the article)
Warhammer 40k could be seen to be xenophobic but when you read the background, its the background of a race (human) that is dying out and is fighting this by attacking anything that threatens its existence. I would agree that most gamers have a sense of humour and irony about the hobby. I would also argue that wargamers although not pacifists are probably realists when it comes to war, because we research the background, we understand to true human cost. I think with gaming its a means for us to examine our prejudices and deal with them. If a male player is playing a female character does that make them gay or is it a means to explore there feminine side, or is it just a player wanting to throw a curve ball to the game referee.
As a publisher I would like to comment on the exploitative pricing. As far as Roleplaying books are concerned, in the book trade the standard discounts a publisher has to give is 60% on RRP for sale or return, or 75% for sale only. In the pure gaming wholesale it’s 60% to wholesalers and 40% for retailers. So the publisher has to cover writers’ fees, art fees, layout costs and all other business expenses out of the 40% of the RRP. Small press is increasngly looking at PDF or print on demand to match the RRP of the big companies who can purchase in bulk.
I run a small games company that publishes a medieval role playing game. In the current edition we are working on we are being as historical accurate as possible. Therefore we are including Jews as an underclass. This does not mean we are anti semitic, but we are showing in the game how it was. Likewise we reflect Christianity as it was warts and all. Some people might not like what it says, but it gives players the opportunity to put themselves in the position of an ethnic minority that is persecuted and how they would respond.
Kieron Gillen on all the factions of Warhammer 40K
Daily Mash parody of women celebrating 25 yrs of 40K
Mazes and Monsters — Terrific post by Noah Antwiler on the 1982 Tom Hanks film about the evils of fantasy role-playing games.