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Topic of the Week - Real-world history in Fantasy 
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Malekith's Best Friend
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Greetings Tyrants,

In the discussion around "Last chance to buy", Dark Princess struck an interesting point. I was about to reply to her post when I thought... this would actually make an interesting topic in itself.
Darkprincess wrote:
Well I don't know if it's just me, but I find that the fantasy incarnations of real-world history is one of the most appealing parts of the hobby. I guess that puts me in the minority.


I'm not sure Dark Princess is a minority in this, at least within our community.
The old Warhammer had many references on real world history. Bretts, TK's and Empire come to mind as prime examples, but there were plenty of references throughout the different armies. So the topic of the week is... Do you like these references?

Personally, I'm ambivalent. I'll start with the pro's. I think such references to past cultures add a human element to it, a touch of reality. While reality is a fickle thing in a fantasy setting, these references to something that was "real" helps to make these fantasy cultures feel more substantial. In the case of the Tomb Kings, we could easily replace the pyramids by large squares and trade the symbols for something more neutral.. It would not invalidate the story of Settra or Nagash one bit. But the reference to ancient Egypt gives us something to latch on to. It makes it easier to relate to the ancient glory of a bygone era.
Inventing a story around a character in Brettonia is easy enough, if you like knights, damsels and swords.
By reusing archtypes of history, or our own culture, it helps to identify with the story and create our own within that universe.
To me, the old world felt more real. I could imagine its culture because it reflected our own in so many ways. I could imagine how its economy would work. I could imagine the day of average Joe.

But on the other hand... References to our own history is also a path filled with presumptions, stereotypes and tropes. It keeps building on the same old formula. And with that old formula, also come the same old mistakes. Some of the references aren't all that great.
I remember a very long debate in a roleplaying group where some players were trying to justify an extremely sexist attitude. The gist of many arguments was "But this fantasy setting builds on medieval society, which was sexist, so we're just playing it how it should be". Or "This is historically more correct".
I don't think the inclusion of pyramids is why women aren't playing WFB/AoS in equal numbers, but that discussion struck me as a clear example of the problem with some real-life references.
People latch on to it in different ways and I've seen the ugly side of it once too often.

Another counter argument for real-life references is the lack of freedom. I'd like to reference a story from Paulo Coelho there... I think it was in his book "the Zahyr" where he asked a railworker why railroad tracks have both rails at exactly that distance. It takes a while and a dig through history to figure out that once upon a time the carriages had to be pulled by horses and so the tracks needed a distance that worked well for 2 horses pulling a kart side by side. The point being that nobody bothered to rethink the system since and nobody really knows why things are the way they are except that it's a rule that must be followed.
Such references to history have a tendency to become rules, and even now, centuries later we're still abiding cultural rules of ancient Egypt because... well... "that's how it should be"?

I was confronted with this in WFB was when I tried to design a small campaign focused around my army and the Dwarf army of a friend. I thought it would be fun to engage each other in a more narrative, immersive story where we'd challenge each other's story lines with actual battles. This wasn't to be a showdown between the two, but a chance to make our stories feel more alive, more tangible by bringing them onto the table and letting the dice influence things.
Except.. his army was stuck in some mountains and mine was stuck on Naggaroth. So, I could invade the Dwarfs to get me some slaves, I thought. Except, now my army had to cross the entirety of Brettonia, cautiously pass the Wood Elves of Lorien and then march through mountains to reach him. And somehow I'd have to carry our boats across the land because we wanted to play a landing of the boats. Why? Well because the Lore said so.
Of course we could say "expeditionary force" and "island or peninsula with rich loot that every wants" to force our two armies together. But it always felt so forced and never seemed to truly respect the nature of our armies.

Well.. I welcome a more open playing field. But I admit, I find the new lore more difficult to relate to. In fact, I have yet to be charmed by the new lore even though I read every book :(

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 10:03 am
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Lord of Khorne
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It's been interesting for me to read the background of the Iron Kingdoms (Warmachine, sportsfans) since jumping ship from GW.

PP doesn't really win massively on the originality stakes, they borrow ideas from stock fantasy, medieval history and even contemporary/recent history (and then stirred in a Steampunk motif). But arguably they have made it more plausible than the Warhammer World by effectively keeping all the races pretty close together (and the one that isn't is basically trying to enslave the rest).

Having something to relate to is how any of us identify with the armies we play or would like to play. 40k plays quite heavily on biblical tropes and most people can identify with the more heroic/villainous characters because of it. AoS possibly takes it one step too far and into some sort of heavenly realm where not even the day to day struggles of people (again, something we can relate to) seem relevant to the game.

GW is trying to be original...which is a bad idea for a company with little tradition of true originality. They even took the core concept of space marines being badass, applied it to AoS...but forgot that once you've escalated it to that level, you leave yourself little design space to move around in. I think they ended up being abstract, which is something most people find hard to get along with. Without some thread of familiarity, you end up confusing people if you aren't careful.

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 1:28 pm
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Rork wrote:
AoS possibly takes it one step too far and into some sort of heavenly realm


In itself, that concept can work. The storyline of Diablo kind of shows that. The heavens in Diablo and the Stormcast share more than their golden looks. And it doesn't stop the world from Diablo from working (though it's very limited).

But...

Rork wrote:
not even the day to day struggles of people (again, something we can relate to) seem relevant to the game.


This... this is the part I'm missing. The biggest loser in this is Chaos and armies like Empire. Chaos always was defined for a large part by the effect it had on its surroundings. Sure, the land itself is still a mess, but there is no society left to be displayed on the brink of madness.

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Furnace of Arcana, a warhammer blog with delusional grandeur.

"I move unseen. I hide in light and shadow. I move faster than a bird. No plate of armour ever stopped me. I strike recruits and veterans with equal ease. And all shiver at my coldest of whispers."
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Mon Feb 15, 2016 1:58 pm
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For me, the appeal to WH was precisely because it related rather closely to RL+legends, much closer that classic Dunjons & Dragons.
I never liked what departed too far from RL+authentic legends: no chaos (except barbarian tribes with limited chaotic transformations), no Skaven (except I loved their hilarious steampunk humor), no Lizardmen (despite looking so beautiful).
On the other hand, I loved the human, elf and dwarf factions.

The reason for liking references to RL is that it makes thngs much more authentic.
I can't help thinking about CoK's modelling a corsair ship. You could say "it's magic, stupid!" and go along any idea you wish, no matter realistic.
Or, as CoK did and I tried to guide him, you could give attention to details which make the ship as close as possible to reality, with only bits of fantasy, and the result makes those bits look really alive.
That is also what makes a good story: you place as much truth as possible, it helps make belive the few addition to be true as well.

I'm looking frowards to reading 9th Age fluff, said to be midway between GW 8th edition and RL+authentic legends.
In a name such as Nabh, the "bh" seems very Celtish.
I would anticipate Dread Elves to be set in either Scotland or Wales, with references to medieval lores from these regions.

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 3:23 pm
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Well I guess that it's kind of tricky for me to get too involved in this discussion, since I have already set out my stall in the post that led to this topic :)

Having said that, I think there is room for some elaboration on my basic position;

First of all, I'm not averse to bringing new ideas into the hobby - far from it - I've worked on developing new army concepts for years, including some that I have taken from D&D and then adapted them to fit into the Warhammer Fantasy world - even a couple that would even work for WH40K (Illithids, for example - though GW has already pretty much ripped them off as a subset of the Tyranid lore - the Genestealers in particular - although a good bit of their stuff is nicked from Lovecraft - but then that's no bad thing anyway, as Gary Gygax himself pretty much ripped HPL in creating the Illithids in the first place)

Anyway, I digress...

Getting back on to the topic here, I feel that having WFB races/species/cultures etc based on real-world history adds a lot to the lore, as others have mentioned, but also provides a rich source of future inspiration - in the case of the Tomb Kings, GW never tried to hide the influence of Ancient Egypt on the army - and why should they have? - It's a wonderful concept which, frankly, they didn't even get close to exploiting to its fullest extent - just as many real-world archaeologists state that there is at least as much still to be discovered in Egypt as has already been found, I think it's fair to say that there is an enormous amount more that GW could have done with this starting point.

Likewise with the Empire army and it's regional variants - There are plenty of fan-made army supplements for the likes of Tilea and Estalia, for example - not to mention the enormous opportunities offered by the likes of Cathay and so on.

Now I fully understand that even GW have limited resources and cannot keep creating new stuff all the time, but I feel that there are many great opportunities that they have passed by over the years. We often talk about GW's innate lack of originality, but in many cases this is not actually a criticism as such - Sometimes it's a good talking point and frankly, the subject of some light amusement, in addition to giving the whole hobby a nice air of cosy familiarity which certainly has a lot of appeal. Yes we all know that Bretts are a ripoff of Monty Python - but that's cool and fun. we know that pretty much all the "traditional" fantasy races (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Goblins etc) are ripped off from Tolkein (either directly, or by way of D&D which itself ripped off the same source material.

There's nothing wrong with this.

There's nothing wrong with tradition

I think many people do have huge issues with GW ripping off other peoples' work and trademarking it as their own though - that's totally inexcusable, but also another discussion for another day.

I think where GW have really fallen down here is in totally wiping out 30 years of canonical lore in favour of a new system. Maybe AoS will be a success or maybe it won't, but since you can use existing models within AoS anyway, there appears to be no real need to ditch all the old fluff (and the veteran players that go along with it - most of whom will not be switching over to AoS anyway, if only because the system doesn't have sufficient balance as yet to be viable for tournament players. Maybe this will change in time, but it's not there yet)

Anyway, I seem to be drifting slightly away from the topic again here, so let's get back to where we need to be...

In my (admittedly very humble) opinion, fantasy worlds have always worked best when they are essentially either a reflection or an extension of the real world. Tolkein, for example, created a mythical world which, for all its wonders, both light and dark, was inheently recognisable. As reader and viewers, we could relate to it, so the fluff made sense (which is why it has become so ubiquitous). Warhammer Fantasy was also set in a mythical world that again was essentially an adaptation of the real world - primarily medieval Europe. This made the fluff relevant and interesting - as well as allowing plenty of room for future expansion in terms of new armies, intriguing fluff and so on. Even stuff like Game of Thrones exists in a recognisable environment...

The Skaven have their underground empire - something akin to D&D's Underdark - and who knows what lives down there - I'm sure that the rat-men are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, so there is just so much untapped potential in there. Maybe one of the reasons that WFB hasn't been making as much money as 40K in recent times is because GW has not spent enough time and effort expanding and developing the existing lore to its full potential. No matter, the community will do that for them in the future, I feel. There are still too many people out there who have immersed themselves in the fluff to let it all go that easily.

So in conclusion, I think that a fantasy world with its roots in real history has so much more to offer than some sort of totally abstract high fantasy environment of the kind that exists in AoS. I realise that this is just my opinion, and I don't expect everybody else to agree with it, but I'm sure that I'm not completely alone in this.

Rork wrote:
GW is trying to be original...which is a bad idea for a company with little tradition of true originality. They even took the core concept of space marines being badass, applied it to AoS...but forgot that once you've escalated it to that level, you leave yourself little design space to move around in. I think they ended up being abstract, which is something most people find hard to get along with. Without some thread of familiarity, you end up confusing people if you aren't careful.


Agreed 100% - although I'm not sure that the idea of the different realms is quite as original as GW seem to think it is - to me it seems a bit too reminiscent of all those extra-dimensional planes of existence in D&D. I really think that GW may have scored a major own-goal with the fluff here (as well as failing their Originality roll more badly than they realise). Maybe the AoS game system will go on to be a huge success (with the kids at least - it's difficult to imagine the veteran players going for it), but the fluff itself seems just so trite and nondescript compared with the canon they have left behind, that I don't see big series of novels and other material being written about it.

Gotrek & Felix meets Stargate SG1???

I don't think so, do you?

Maybe in the fullness of time, GW will realise their error and set the record straight - at least as far as the fluff is concerned. They don't have to keep developing new rules - we still play 6th edition, many others are still running games in 7th or even 8th, but wrecking the fluff like they did just doesn't fly so come on guys, keep AoS if you wish, but bring back the WFB fluff that we all know and love - you can still have small skirmish-type games in WFB - That's why you brought out the skirmish rules years ago - you don't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater - you can have the penny and the bun if you're smart enough...

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 4:35 pm
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Lord of Khorne
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Quote:
I think where GW have really fallen down here is in totally wiping out 30 years of canonical lore in favour of a new system. Maybe AoS will be a success or maybe it won't, but since you can use existing models within AoS anyway, there appears to be no real need to ditch all the old fluff (and the veteran players that go along with it - most of whom will not be switching over to AoS anyway, if only because the system doesn't have sufficient balance as yet to be viable for tournament players. Maybe this will change in time, but it's not there yet)


I think GW are trying to ape PP to drive the game forward these days. If we're honest, not a lot generally happened in the WH backstory - wars, DE vs HE, Dwarfs vs O&G...but nothing ever happened. Storm of Chaos came along where something happened...and GW didn't like the result they got. End times actually got in that groove again...and yeah, good job, GW.

Now, like WM/H, they have the ongoing background as an excuse to change things up once in a while (and, like PP, to release new stuff)...although given how "epic" most of the stuff in AoS is, characters changing seems quite hard (again, design space) and it even lacks the defined characters within the game that made 40k pretty cool (Ragnar, Calgar, Abaddon etc etc.). It just becomes a series of battles rather than any specific struggle or chance for character development.

Ironically, GW may have fallen into the space that no one occupies...and is unoccupied for good reason!

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 4:54 pm
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Rork wrote:
Storm of Chaos came along where something happened...and GW didn't like the result they got.


Then if they don't like the answers, maybe they shouldn't be asking the questions...

Rork wrote:
Ironically, GW may have fallen into the space that no one occupies...and is unoccupied for good reason!


Yeah. Time will tell how (and if) they manage to crawl out of it...

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 5:17 pm
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There's a fine line. I like limited historical tie-ins because it makes the story relatable and brings a little sense of realism. I also like a limited amount of cultural similarity to real-world cultures in fantasy settings (Khemri/Egypt for example), for many of the same reasons. But if you overdo it, it feels like you just put a thin veneer of fantasy on top of historical earth and renamed it.

To cross platforms a little, a really good example of "getting it right" for me, is Golarion, the setting for Pathfinder RPG. It's derivative, but in a good way, not only to pieces of earth history, but from other fantasy settings so you can cross over from old modules easily. IE, if you have an old Ravenloft campaign you want to run, it doesn't take a lot of modification to fit it into Golarion's Ustalav. It's different enough to be its own thing, and it's in a world full of different things, but there's still enough similarity that it works.

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 6:16 pm
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I think when done well, it can be aninteresting look at huma history such as what happened int eh world of Drqgon Ag e. Other times it just adds fun as real life is often times more fancifulnthen fiction or can give you some coolnitems.

The weapons come to mind fist. Ones even as bizar as the man cat her are taken from the real world to add flavor to it.

As long as it was is to service the story and baclground I think its jusf another tool in the artist's tool box.

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Mon Feb 15, 2016 6:40 pm
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