Like a lot of BL authors, I have my fingers firmly wedged in two pies. I’m talking Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 here, not custard and beef (though, what a combo!).
As I may have said before, I actually find the process of writing for 40K a lot more difficult than Warhammer, but I know some folks have expressed for them it’s the other way around. So, for what it’s worth, he’s my guide to writing Warhammer (and how I seem to connect with it so easily).
Your first point to bear in mind (or that I bear in mind) is that this is a pseudo-medieval fantasy world with pseudo-medieval fantastic things in it. When you think of Warhammer, though, leave any high fantasy you may have read, leave Dungeons & Dragons, leave ’soft’ fantasy at the door. Warhammer is the trenches of fantasy universes. It’s grim, it’s dark, it’s not a place you want to be. Think the dirtiest battlefields of the English Civil War, think the lowest slums of the French Revolution, think the paranoia and hysteria of the Black Death – that’s Warhammer (well, it is for me).
Compared to the vast galaxy of the 41st millennium, Warhammer might seem like a pretty small sand pit to play in – it’s only one world, right?
Unlike a lot of 40K milieu’s the Warhammer Old World (and those realms beyond) is diverse and richly detailed. Sure, in the open expanse of the galaxy, you can world build, move away from the homogenised planets labelled: ice world, hive world, death world, forge world, but in Warhammer it’s already there.
Don’t look at the map and make the mistake of thinking, ‘Well, that’s all the towns, all the cities, all the secrets then…’
For starters, the Empire is MASSIVE. Think bigger than Germany, folks. There are some landmarks for sure. Who, that knows their background (and that’s another point: Know your background), hasn’t heard of Altdorf or Nuln or Middenheim. But those, and the other cities and towns (and even villages) noted on the Empire map are not the only ones. Imagine your story as taking place in one of the gaps between those cities (unless, and why wouldn’t you, you wanted to set a tale in one of those famous cities – which are also bloody massive, sprawling metropolises by the way). There are vast and uncharted tracks of land here. Suddenly the world doesn’t seem so small, does it?
Think of the Empire’s cities and towns (and indeed those settlements of other races) as tiny beacons of light (admittedly, walled and gated, with armed guards beacons of light…) amidst a huge blanket of untamed wilderness. It’s dark and scary beyond the walls (it’s pretty dark and scary within them, too), and anyone who travels between them, especially after dark, would either do it with an armed guard in an armoured coach or is likely mad, a super-hard hero or one of the monsters preying in said darkness.
So, that’s the size issue out of the way. Lots of sand pit to play in, is the mantra here.
What about inspiration then?
Look no further than the art. There are some beautiful renderings of the Warhammer world in every single army book and rulebook based on the universe. Absorb them, take in the detail, try to figure out the story that’s being told. Read the history and try to figure out who is who and why. History is how you build your characters. You’ve got a world, now nail down your character’s place in it.
Warhammer is a medieval world, I said that right. Kind of weird pseudo dark ages/Renaissance/Age of Enlightenment. People are nuts, and they’re all pretty scared that the world’s about to end (you would be too with orcs pouring out the mountains, beastmen raging from the forests and Chaos on the march – and don’t get me started on the restless dead, so rampant you have to bury your loved ones faced down, or the rat-men that can walk and talk but that everyone puts down to ludicrous rumour and doesn’t believe exist). But the great thing about it being a medieval world is you have a ready-built frame of reference – it’s called real world history. The language you use, the technology that’s available, it’s already there.
I know what a spear and a sword and a dagger and a buckler and a vambrace is – these words exist, there are actual, real-life pictures of them. Personally, I find that harder to visualise. There’s no need to come up with analogues or simulacra – these things are here, you can see them and you can touch them (well, you can get pretty close at a museum exhibit or some such).
So, you’ve got your historical framework, you know your background, you’ve established it’s a big world but can (if you wish) put a pin in the area of the map where you’d like your story to take place, what’s left to remember?
Well, that’s easy really.
As well as being a medieval world (and I’m using the term fairly loosely, oh history graduates), Warhammer is also a fantasy world. Here is where it gets tricky, and as such I refer you back to my initial point about darkness, horror and so on.
Grit is the name of the game here. This is not a world where a magic sword lurks around every corner. It is not a world where the elves are all benevolent and nice, nor where the dwarfs whistle while they work, or where the race of men gets on and presents a unified front against all the evils of the world. The Empire is a fragile alliance of nations; the elves don’t like the dwarfs and the feeling is mutual, and the evil guys are lurking around the next corner waiting to bring it all down – All. Of. The. Time. All of it.
That’s not to say there shouldn’t be rays of hopes, or victories, or moments of levity – too much darkness and no one’s going to want to read that. But this is not fantasy light, nor is it the high fantasy of silly, unpronounceable names and mind-numbing self-indulgence (if that’s your bag, great – stop reading now, though, and sorry to have waited your time). Warhammer is also about the roots – it’s rooted in what’s real (relatively speaking) and tangible and even believable (again, I refer you to relativity). It’s a twisted, gnarled and probably diseased root, but it’s a root. But what heroes can rise from this mire of turpitude, all the brighter and more refulgent because of the bleak tableaux against which they are based. Sure, it’s probably a hero with a drink problem, or a dark soul, or a troubled past but a hero none-the-less.
Warhammer is shades of grey, and some black, admittedly – no one is entirely good and… quite a lot of people are entirely evil. It’s about the atmosphere – soak it up. If you’re going to write cool battle scene watch the opening of Gladiator or Troy. If you want to experience the grit and corruption, check out The Devil’s Whore or take in a few of the earlier episodes of Sharpe. There’s inspiration everywhere.
Writing, and writing Warhammer, is like any exercise – you need to do your warm up first. Watch inspirational stuff, connect and analyse the background, absorb the art and make some notes. Tell yourself this a big world with lots of possibilities. Gets some metaphorical dirt under your finger nails, strap on your knotted sword and meet me on the battlefield. That’s where I’ll be…