WFRP1 is often characterised as a British game. I thought it might be interesting to consider what characteristics, if any, mark it out as distinctively British.
It will no doubt be very tempting to fall back on cultural stereotypes. I shall do my best to avoid such clichés, but I can’t promise to be wholly successful.
I also need to issue one other caveat: I am myself British. I am aware that this simultaneously qualifies and disqualifies me from opining about Britishness.
Of course, in one sense WFRP1 is obviously British. It was written by British authors for a British games company. But it’s also worth while pointing out that it shared a number of authors with games that are probably considered characteristically American. Ken Rolston wrote for most major RPGs of the 1980s. Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher and Mike Brunton worked at TSR before joining GW. Nonetheless, these names may be the exceptions that prove the rule. It has been suggested before that Rolston’s WFRP work “misses the spirit of WFRP” and that the TSR UK adventures are different in style from those produced by TSR in the US.
DARK SATANIC MILLS
At the time … fantasy games were always very clean and heroic; every character had gleaming armour, a bodybuilder physique, perfect teeth and masses of back-combed blonde hair. Moral questions were always black and white, with no real dilemmas. It was very shallow, and I found it unsatisfying. I still love the way WFRP blends horror and humour, and challenges players to deal with complex situations and choices of evils.
– Graeme Davis, Warpstone
There is to my mind little doubt that WFRP1 has a different tone from the other major fantasy RPGs of the era. That is in large part because it is darker, grittier and morally less absolute.
But are these attributes characteristically British? Certainly they contrast with the major fantasy games of the 1980s, which were exclusively American (see, for example, my D&D Manifesto post). And GW staff seem to have been very conscious of the differences:
It’s undeniable there was a certain amount of American versus British feeling there.
– John Stallard, Battlegames
But I find it hard to claim these features are distinctively British. Shadows Over Bögenhafen is often considered the archetypal WFRP adventure. Yet it was by design a Call of Cthulhu adventure for Warhammer, and Call of Cthulhu was written by an American for an American publisher, based on American literature. It may have been the case that there was a greater propensity among British authors to embrace such a style, but the style was not, in my view, unique or necessarily characteristic.
Moreover, these ideas could also have been (and may actually have been) adopted outside the world of English-speaking RPGs.
So in my view WFRP‘s grim peril does not on its own mark the game out as British.
GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND
One way in which WFRP does seem British, though, is in its geography. Although the Old World is based on the real European continent, the scale on which the game is played seems to reflect historical Britain, and more specifically England. For example, the sizes of Old World cities match more closely the smaller cities of Renaissance England than their much larger European counterparts. There is also an almost complete absence of lakes of any great size. This reflects British geographical patterns and contrasts with the large lakes of continental Europe. (Neither the lakes of England’s Lake District nor the lochs of Scotland are anywhere near the size of large European lakes.)
The contrast is even more striking when WFRP is compared with American games. The United States is, of course, far larger, wilder and less densely populated than England or other European countries. The exploration of vast wilderness areas was a staple of D&D/AD&D. WFRP, by contrast, focused more on urban adventures. (This point was well made by Andy Bartlett in his blog.)
ANARCHY IN THE UK
Warhammer also features many British cultural references, particularly from the 1980s. The appearances of Trollslayers, wood elves and Amazons have punk elements. Goblinoid culture is modelled on British football hooliganism. The presentation of several races is based on British regional stereotypes:
Dwarves were characterized as grim northerners, Orcs were dodgy south Londoners, elves as not quite manly, effete southerners… It was all just such great fun!
– John Stallard, Battlegames
AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
To my mind, though, the element that most characterises WFRP1 as British is its sense of humour.
JS: The Americans struck me as terribly serious at that time, and the gaming, in my opinion, seemed a bit dull, and when Rick wrote Warhammer, of course with some guidance from Bryan, it was irreverent, it was very funny.
RP: Well, that sort of characterization was driven by a very British sense of humour, very Pythonesque in places, and certainly irreverent, to the point of being a bit ‘sixth-form’ to be honest. That was definitely something that Hal [Richard Halliwell] and I brought to it, because Hal did a lot of the original writing on Warhammer.
– John Stallard and Rick Priestley, Battlegames
So what makes WFRP‘s sense of humour British? Wikipedia offers this description of British humour:
British humour is shaped by the relative stability of British society and carries a strong element of satire aimed at “the absurdity of everyday life”. Themes include the class system and sexual taboos; common techniques include puns, innuendo and intellectual jokes.
A strong theme of sarcasm and self-deprecation, often with deadpan delivery, runs throughout British humour. Humour may be used to bury emotions in a way that seems insensitive to other cultures. Jokes are told about everything and almost no subject is taboo, though often a lack of subtlety when discussing controversial issues is considered crass.
Helpfully Wikipedia goes on to provide a list of the distinctive characteristics of British humour. The list rings true to me, so I have compared humour in WFRP against it.
Satire. Warhammer contains several satirical references to British politics of the 1980s. The Empress Margaritha, who came to power in 1979 and oversaw the collapse of Imperial elections, is an obvious reference to the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The Scroll Tax in Power Behind the Throne alludes to the controversial “Poll Tax” of the late 1980s. And the WFB supplement McDeath is full of references to the Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985.
Absurd and surreal. There are several examples of comically absurd situations in the Enemy Within campaign: the Purple Hand’s silly hand gestures, tea with Ludwig von Wittgenstein, the goblin leader in a borrowed dress.
Black comedy. WFRP1 certainly mixes humour with serious subjects. The “bloody milk” joke in Mistaken Identity is an excellent example. (The joke is actually taken from The Black Adder, episode 5, ‘The Witchsmeller Pursuivant’. To me that episode particularly captures the spirit of WFRP, at least in its more absurd moments.)
Racial, national and regional stereotypes. The comedic potential of regional and national stereotypes is exploited in WFRP1 with gusto. Silly accents abound: cockney orcs, dwarfs from Yorkshire, Belgian gnome detectives, to name some of the more obvious ones.
Mercifully jokes about racial stereotypes are generally avoided in WFRP1, but ‘The Floating Gardens of Bahb-Elonn’ (in White Dwarf 100) is an unfortunate exception.
Parody of other stereotypes. In ‘The Affair of the Hidden Jewel’ there is little else!
Class system. The cliché of buffoonish aristocrats behaving badly is alive and well in WFRP1, for example in ‘Hooray for Henry’ in Mistaken Identity, and the similar encounter in ‘River Life of the Empire’.
Loveable rogue. I don’t recall this archetype being common in WFRP1, but there is the example of the Dickensian urchins in Power Behind the Throne.
Tolerance of and affection for eccentricity. Again this is not common in WFRP1, but one example is Wolfgang Kugelschreiber in ‘Eureka’.
Other. There are several themes in the Wikipedia list that are notably absent from WFRP1: innuendo (which was increasingly seen as old-fashioned by the mid-1980s), bullying and harsh sarcasm, social embarrassment, everyday life and the conflict between adults and children.
CARRY ON ROLE-PLAYING
Overall I think the nationality of its authors does shine through clearly in WFRP1. Where it is most striking is in its approach to humour, especially its black comedy. WFRP1‘s darker tone did not on its own mark it out as characteristically British, but its willingness to blend “horror and humour”, as Graeme Davis puts it, did.
Of course, the individual features I have highlighted should not be considered to be uniquely British, but they are in my opinion (which, as I discussed earlier, is qualified in both senses of the word) distinctive. They are qualities that helped define the game.