Thursday, August 05, 2010

Of GW, the lure of Chaos, gribblies, and stuff

Space Hulk wins 2 Golden Geek Awards
My recent visits to the pages of Black Library novels: Graham McNeill's Heldenhammer- which I picked up at Conflict 2010, and Nathan Long's Bloodborn- which I reviewed last month; these visits to the world of the book have revived my interest in tie-in fiction set in two of my favourite gaming universes. And so it was that last Saturday saw me dropping in to my local GW in search of new reading matter. Also available was the new issue of White Dwarf. I confess I'm in the camp who finds GW's house magazine to be of limited utility in terms of adding value to my GW gaming interests- namely 40K, but I always like to read interviews with the creative types at the Design Studio. White Dwarf #368 features two, so I bought it.
One mighty game; two well-deserved awards

Skimming through the pages of news and new releases, as you do, I was pleasantly surprised to read Jervis Johnson's grateful acknowledgement of the two 2009 Golden Geek Awards the BGG community had awarded Space Hulk, whose 3rd edition was released amid great fanfare last year. The awards were:
  • Best 2-player game.
  • Best artwork/presentation.
Pleasant: because it was good to see that Space Hulk had received these accolades from the BGG community, and because it was nice to read Jervis' appreciation of this in the pages of White Dwarf. Surprising: because, regular BGG user that I am, I had no idea of these awards- the official awards ceremony was in November last year, until I read of Space Hulk's 2009 success in White Dwarf.

From the depths of darkness past
I'm sure I've mentioned before somewhere that I didn't immediately take to the chaos, death and spikey bits which have become the trademark style upon which GW have lovingly lavished so much care and attention these past 37 years. I didn't like the look of it when it first appeared in Citadel's Fantasy Adventurers range of roleplaying miniatures back in 1982. And I didn't like this vision any more when I first saw it in all its vivid detail, in the guise of 'Harry the Hammer' on the cover of Warhammer Fantasy Battle when the first edition appeared a year later.

Back then I was of course still under the shadow of Tolkien, the great grandaddy of 20th century high fantasy. My tastes therefore ran to a more naturalistic style: worlds whose trappings retained a certain real-world plausibility even if their denizens were utterly fantastic. The result was that my imagination couldn't find a place for these new gothic stylings; they didn't speak to me of worlds I wanted to visit because I still expected fantasy worlds ultimately to be rooted in the materiality of our own world.

It was after the appearance of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay- 1986, and Warhammer 40K: Rogue Trader- 1987, that I finally got the point of GW's new vision. And that point was? In a word: Chaos. WFRP took the grotesqueries from which I had instinctively shrunk a just few years earlier and put them in a context which brought them to life. That context- one of a life and death struggle between a beleaguered humanity and legions of darkness, was hardly novel in and of itself. It was the sheer grandiosity of the Ruinous Powers- simultaneously genuinely unsettling in their implacable evil and in their overweening disregard for life, and actually quite intelligent to boot; it was this sheer scale which put them in a league of their own.
Strangely magnificent as they were, the Ruinous Powers of the Old World and the Dark Millenium wouldn't in and of themselves have been enough to lure me into GW's new worlds. What did that ultimately was the theme of the enemy within. This theme scaled the overpowering threat of Chaos down to a level which is:
  • Managable in game terms; ie. something characters can confront and against which they might prevail.
  • Part of everyday life instead of some distant and overwhelming faceless evil; giving rise to the paranoia for which GW's two great gaming worlds are so justly renowned.
  • Something of a 'rational' choice in an evidently hopeless situation; this creates the possibility of pathos and other sensibilities surprisingly subtle for gaming settings sketched in in such visceral broad strokes.
If WFRP played fast and loose with the traditional Faustian pact of surrendering to evil instead of struggling against it, the development of the background to 40K took the next step: it took such a pact and wrote it into the heart of the setting in the form of a tragic fall from grace, namely the Heresy. The immediate effect of this was to underscore a key theme of 40K: the futility of rebellion. In most SF, evil empires are there to be defeated by heroic rebels. In 40K, the evil empires' Evil Empire remains mankind's last best hope because all the alternatives are worse, and because rebellion itself is a curse thanks to Chaos.

Absolute evil, the struggle against it, and rebellion: these are potent themes. Chaos- in the Old World and in the Dark Millenium both, makes these themes simultaneously black and white and shades of grey, a paradox which contributes to these worlds' enduring appeal. It's certainly what made me interested enough to want to visit and revisit these worlds down the years.

Slithering, slurping, howling hordes of insane slaughter
All of which brings us back to White Dwarf #368 and another reason why I couldn't resist it: it's dedicated to the new additions to the Chaos Daemons range. As a 40K fan, my interest in Chaos has long lain with my plans to build an army of Red Corsairs, plans which were seeded as soon as I read of the Red Corsairs in the Huron Blackheart entry in 2nd edition Codex: Chaos. A piratical army of recent renegades from the Imperium? Readers should be able easily to imagine why the appeal of this was so immediate and strong to yours truly.
As is typically the case these days, a new wave of GW releases means new plastic sets to replace miniatures which used to be available only in metal, as well as new characters in metal. Speaking as a would-be Lord of Chaos with my own heretical agendas, I have to say that the new Khornate stuff appeals to me the most:
These are the sort of daemonic allies I would choose first to recruit to my own Red Corsairs.
I've also got to mention the new Pink Horrors of Tzeentch plastic boxed set. This is partly because of the thematic appeal of combining Khorne's unquenchable bloodfrenzy with Tzeentch's subtle reality-warping, but mostly because Giorgio Bassani gets a design co-credit with Mark Harrison. Regular readers might remember that Andy and I had a nice chat with Giorgio when we met him at Conflict 2010 last April. Now we know (some of?) the secrets Giorgio could't tell us that day. I'm sure Giorgio will be very proud when his work finally hits the shelves on Saturday.

One last thing...Tomorrow- Friday the 6th, GW Glasgow have an author event featuring BL writer Richard Williams, whose most recent novel is Reiksguard, in the Empire Army series. The event starts at 3pm and will feature an Ork versus Empire megabattle based on the one in Reiksguard, as well as the usual opportunity to chat with the author and get some signage. I daresay I'll be taking along my copy of Liber Chaotica, for which Richard shared authors' credits with Marijan von Staufer. Should be fun. ;)


gnome said...

Lovely read once again at this most mature and durable of gaming blogs. Anyway. Just want to say I really love my 3rd ed. Space Hulk and that I never really saw what is it with the concept of Chaos, GW finds intrinsically evil

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

"I never really saw what is it with the concept of Chaos, GW finds intrinsically evil"

Are you saying you never really understood why Chaos is "intrinsically evil" in GW worlds? To be honest I don't believe it is presented as such because it's more Cthulhoid than that.

What I mean to say is that Chaos in GW's worlds is 'evil' because it's goals are inimincal to humanity (and other species). There is no escaping that. But Chaos itself is presented as a vast and essential force which is above petty human concerns; this is the Cthulhoid dimension.

In the face of these forces humanity would appear (or actually is) doomed. Which is where the Faustian pacts and all the other resonances come in. It is these aspects of Chaos in GW's worlds which I believe make GW's 'ultimate evil' a bit more subtle than the black-and-white versions which are commonplace across the F&SF genre. ;)

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Oh, and you did get yourself 3rd edition Space Hulk in the end? Nice one. You already know then that you'd've regretted it to the end of your days if you hadn't. Oh those moneysuckers! :D

Andrew Paul said...

Evil? not sure, really. What Chaos is, to me, is self-destructive. it's the dark reflection of what it is to be human; the urge to improve one's lot, the fortitude to prevail against adversity, the joy of living and the passion to fight for what is yours. All of those things are twisted into the mass of otherworldly horror that is the Realm of Chaos.

Andrew Paul said...

I saw Richard at Salute 2009. No idea what his book's like, but he was commendably persistent in his efforts to get me to buy a copy. :)

grumhelden said...

I always read the Imperium as being the fascist overlords, the right wing. Chaos being the lefties and commies, the ravers and crusties, led by overly libertarian and hedonistic gods. Churning constantly and always self destructive. When I was young the forces of the Imperium terrified me, that they were so inimical to freedom, and the dark forces of chaos were equally terrifying, exactly because there was no limits...the kind of unrestricted hedonism that drives the horror in Hellraiser.

As always, a pleasure to read John.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

When I say that Chaos is "evil", I mean that it is from humanity's (and others') point of view; it's effects are evil by any standard.

As for Chaos being "the dark reflection of what it is to be human", I guess that's what people find in Chaos; although I suspect too you might be referring to (what for me is) a dimly remembered account of the nature of Chaos. I tend to take the creatures of chaos as self-sufficient entities, whatever their initial origins might have been. ;)

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

I've always seen the Imperium as do you, but not Chaos as such. As I've said, for me Chaos has always been essentially neutral. It's just that its nature is utterly inimical to humanity, so its goals are dangerous.

As for the good guys in the Dark Millenium? Well I've long held to the heresy that Horus got a bad press, that the story that he'd sold out to Chaos is the winner's story. And we all know what winners' stories are worth. That's my version of the 'Skywalker option' in 40K. ;)