FLYING THE FLAG

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.

RULE BRITANNIA

Proms

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

Green and Pleasant Land.jpg

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.

– Wikipedia

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.

Puns.  Puns are first in Wikipedia’s list, and they should be first in any such list for WFRP. Warhammer is awash with puns, both good and bad.

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.

Witchsmeller Pursuivant

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.

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5 thoughts on “FLYING THE FLAG

  1. Astute as always.

    While we didn’t specifically set out to create something British, there was always the understanding that WFRP was intended to be Britain’s challenge to AD&D. For the most part, though, we were just being ourselves – which is to say, a motley crew of working-class and left-leaning middle-class British lads, recently out of college and still full of undergraduate humour, seeing what we could get away with before the “humour police” in management stopped us. And, on occasion, working out some of our frustrations, as with the village names of Ripdorf, Pissdorf, and Braundorf.

    British-American relations were at a low ebb at that time, despite – or perhaps because of – the so-called “Reagan-Thatcher romance” and the cruise missile crisis which, many of us genuinely felt, would get us all blown to radioactive smithereens at any moment. And even if that fate could be avoided, many feared that Britain was being subjected to a form of cultural imperialism (ironic, considering what we had been doing in India and Africa for the previous two centuries, but it was a fear of the time) and would end up as “Air Strip One,” the fifty-first state in effect if not in name, with a total loss of sovereignty and of that elusive but instinctive quality, “Britishness.” I only observed the Brexit convulsions from the other side of an ocean, but a lot of the same emotions seem to have been in play – only directed at Brussels this time, rather than at Washington.

    So, although as I say, we didn’t set out to wave the flag for Britain, equally we weren’t going to be pandering to American sensibilities (or rather, to our understanding of them, which was fragmentary, biased, and almost wholly fallacious). We celebrated our cultural influences rather than trying to get away from them, and if I’m honest, we didn’t really expect (we the design team, that is: I’m sure Sales and Marketing had other ideas) that the game would sell much outside Britain. Certainly we never expected it to sell in Europe: I mean, what British gamers read or played l’Oiel Noir/Der Schwarze Auge, or Drakar och Demoner? We might have been a bit more careful with the silly German names otherwise.

    In the end, we were a bunch of young gamers who had been incredibly lucky and been offered the chance to do it for a living. We wrote for ourselves, and for people just like us. It was another unbelievable stroke of luck that other people like out stuff as well.

    Oh, and the rowdy nobles meme was another sign of the times. Back then, the tabloid press fed hungrily on the antics of boisterous young toffs (chief among them Viscount Charles “Champagne Charlie” Althorpe, Princess Diana’s brother and now Earl Spencer) as they went about wrecking restaurants and de-bagging waiters while Thatcher’s social and economic policies steadily widened the class/wealth gap that had been healing since the end of the War. Phil Gallagher and Carl Sargent had both attended Cambridge University, observing the species in its natural habitat; I had been to Durham, where the “rahs” of University and St. Mary’s colleges were generally regarded as posh kids who weren’t bright enough to get into Oxford or Cambridge. So as well as class strife, there was an element of satire in the way we portrayed the younger members of the Empire’s nobility.

    Funny old world, isn’t it? Worries about loss of national sovereignty and identity, the entitled rich behaving badly – it’s almost as though thirty years haven’t actually passed.

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  2. Enjoyed the analysis but I’d argue that one word is conspicuous by its absence: Tolkien. His writing cast a long shadow on “heroic fantasy” and WFRP can be seen as another (unconscious?) reaction to it. So, instead of AD&D heroes undertaking epic quests, we had WFRP characters moving through careers. That’s quite British middle-class.

    I agree jokes about racial stereotypes are largely avoided but there is an uncomfortable illustration on p67 of WFRP1 hardback linked to the Bribe standard test. And, whilst not jokes per se, it’s worth noting that the illustrations for each career are all white males (very British 1980s). There is one token female (p105) but she’s a slave being held by the throat by a white male Slaver.

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    1. You make a good point about Tolkien. Of the many elements he contributed to WFRP, I suppose there are some that could be considered characteristically British.

      One is again geographic. Although Tolkien might protest otherwise, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are suffused with an idealised notion of the English countryside. Some of this probably filters into most fantasy RPGs.

      A second element is one you highlight: race and gender bias. I may be mistaken, but I think the only black characters in the whole of WFRP1 are the pygmies in WD100, and they are grotesque caricatures. The only other non-white character I can think of is Salladh-bar in Warhammer City.

      Tolkien’s books contain a similar lack of diversity in race and gender. This probably reflected British society in the 1930s and 1940s, when they were written. But it did not reflect British society of the 1980s, which was racially more diverse.

      It might be suggested that the white-male bias accurately represents historic Renaissance Europe, but I confess to being uncomfortable with it, nonetheless. It feels inappropriate when the racial mix of potential players is very different.

      At least it’s a lot better than the grim racial stereotypes in WFB2. It’s notable that some sections of the WFRP bestiary which take their wording from WFB2 edit out the worst of WFB2’s racial depictions.

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  3. Great post! There is a lot of humour going about in WFRP, is it particularly British tho? The American produced Paranoia RPG (which Ken Rolston wrote for) is full of dark, satirical comedy. It’s all a million miles from Gygaxian prose of AD&D, and the serious business of fantasy gaming.

    With regards ‘Britishness’ have a look at some of the early Citadel Miniatures packaging which feature a British standard bearer – someone had decided that was, worth making a fuss about more than required by various import laws.

    And while there are elements of racist caricature in the presentation of pygmies, I go at some lengths in an article on Warhammer Pygmies to show that The Floating Gardens of Bahb-Elonn may not be as two-dimensional as it might first appear. With relevance to the ‘British’ question, it also does highlights some peculiarly Black-British rather than, say, Afro-American, ideas being played out.

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    1. I think it is a particularly British type of comedy. As far as I am aware, Paranoia features puns, satire and black comedy, but none of the other elements I talk about above (and it lacks the specifically British subjects of the satire). Moreover, Paranoia is an out-and-out comic game. WFRP was part serious, part silly. It’s more debatable whether that is distinctively British, but I think it is, and would cite Wikipedia’s point about a British willingness to find humour even in controversial subjects. But I’d certainly agree that some of the elements I talk about feature in games from other countries, even if I think the particular combination in WFRP is British.

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