DÉJÀ VU

WFRP is not the most original game. It is to a considerable extent a mashup of elements from history, literature, mythology and folklore. Vikings rub shoulders with crusaders, Aztecs and musketeers. Gods blend Celtic, Norse and Graeco-Roman myth. Tolkien’s elves can be found alongside Moorcock’s beastmen. WFRP plunders archetypes with abandon.

Such an approach is, of course, not unique to WFRP. It has been deployed in many fantasy role-playing games. Famously Appendix N of AD&D‘s first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide celebrated that game’s derivative elements.

Nor is such intertextuality a new phenomenon. It is part of a rich tradition that stretches back to ancient times and the classical topos. Topoi were literary and rhetorical commonplaces: ideas and motifs that would be drawn on by several authors, to which each would apply his or her own interpretation. Just as Homer depicted Achilles’ shield in the Iliad, so Vergil’s Aeneid contains an account of Aeneas’.

There is an interesting parallel between the use of such commonplaces in ancient literature and in fantasy fiction and gaming.

Ancient authors, perhaps because their audience was more restricted and shared with them a more limited cultural background, seem to have been fonder of such commonplaces than modern ones….

Oxford Classical Dictionary

The fantasy genre shares this narrower frame of reference and more limited audience. This might explain its enthusiasm for commonplaces.

WFRP‘s use of commonplaces brings a number of potential benefits. One is accessibility. Many aspects of the setting will already be familiar to players and GMs. It is not necessary to pore over pages of lore before starting play. More original settings, on the other hand, create a knowledge barrier that needs to be overcome. It explains why exotic backgrounds, such as MAR Barker’s Tékumel, receive so little attention. This point did not escape that setting’s creator.

What this means for the designers of fantasy role-playing games is just this: a familiar background will probably “sell” better than an unfamiliar one. The more intelligible the characters, social structures, languages, mores, and religious manifestations are, the easier it is for players to assume comfortable roles in that world. Even a mediocre Western-Classical-Mediaeval background will probably be more saleable than an esoteric one. Pages of odd names and lengthy disquisitions tend to repel the reader….

– MAR Barker, ‘Create a Religion in Your Spare Time for Fun and Profit’, Gryphon 2 (1980)

Another benefit to WFRP‘s mashup approach, especially when drawing on historical inspiration, is verisimilitude. Detailed and realistic environments with a rich texture of social and political structures can be assembled with relative ease.

It is much harder – and not always as satisfying – to create a wholly new world with new peoples, new faiths, new political systems, and new mores. This needs a staggering amount of work and thought. Otherwise, it is likely to appear too simplistic, too neat, too “clean,” too colourless – just normal Americans running about in funny costumes.

… It is a lot easier just to toss mediaeval France-England, Classical Greece and Rome, and the Norsemen and Gauls into a blender, season well with Tolkien, Howard, Vance, Leiber, and Lovecraft, and add a soupçon of one’s own imagination: voilà! a world!

ibid

This is exactly what Warhammer did. Replace “Vance” with “Moorcock” and you have the recipe for the Warhammer world.

Of course, many other role-playing games have plundered history and literature. (Even WFRP‘s plagiarism is plagiarised!) Yet in my opinion there is a distinctive quality to WFRP‘s expression of this approach.

Fantasy game designers rarely come with degrees in anthropology, history or comparative religion.

ibid

But WFRP‘s did. Rick Priestley and Graeme Davis were archaeologists. Jim Bambra had a history degree. WFRP‘s authors were unusually well equipped to draw on historical influences, and avoid a setting of “normal Britons running about in funny costumes”.

When I write for Warhammer, a lot of stuff that I put in has come from historical things that I’ve read.

Rick Priestley and I both studied archaeology, Mike Brunton is very knowledgeable about all manners of history, especially military, Tony Ackland likewise. That set a tone for Warhammer, because we were reacting against the sort of Hollywood Middle Ages of D&D.

– Graeme Davis, Mud & Blood podcast, episode 31

The archaeology [was an inspiration], as well. You find things, discover things, you read stuff. You’re studying societies to some extent. So when we did the Warhammer Old World, you know, the populations patterns, the way things move, the rate at which you can travel from A to B, all that is based on real history.

– Rick Priestley, Paint All the Minis, episode 14

There were limitations to this approach. WFRP rarely strayed from the pseudo-European setting of the northern Old World. This may have been purely accidental; there was perhaps simply neither the time or interest to cover the wider Warhammer world. But it might reflect that the authors’ historical knowledge was skewed to Europe and they felt less equipped to deliver the same pseudo-historical realism in other regions. Graeme Davis has certainly expressed such a view:

… Regarding Estalia and Lustria [sourcebooks], I would need to do an awful lot of research. I’m ashamed to say I know very little about the history of Spain…. All they teach us in English schools is 1588 and the destruction of the Armada…. I may not be the best person for that particular job.

– Graeme Davis, Pinceladasdeplata

A third advantage of drawing on other sources is perhaps the most powerful: resonance. We are able to bring to bear a thousand mental associations. When we read about Lustria, we mine the story of Cortés, the places and cultures of South America, the fanciful imaginings of von Däniken. When we encounter a Bretonnian gnome detective, we draw on countless representations of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. A kidnapping in a red barn recalls the infamous Red Barn murder.

Umberto Eco made this point well about the film Casablanca.

… Precisely because all the archetypes are here, precisely because Casablanca cites countless other films, and each actor repeats a part played on other occasions, the resonance of intertextuality plays upon the spectator.

Casablanca brings with it, like a trail of perfume, other situations that the viewer brings to bear on it quite readily….

Casablanca is not just one film. It is many films, an anthology.

– Umberto Eco, ‘Casablanca, or, The Clichés Are Having a Ball’

WFRP‘s iconic adventures are in many ways anthologies, too. The early parts of the Enemy Within campaign make reference to Faust, Metamorphosis, Frankenstein, Dracula, Treasure Island, The Godfather, Robin Hood, Laurel and Hardy, Hammer horror movies and more. (The absence of such allusions from later parts of the campaign perhaps explains why they have a different, and less satisfactory, feel.)

WFRP‘s unoriginality is one of its greatest strengths, and in my view the source of much of its charm. Originality is overrated. Otherwise we’d all be playing Tékumel.

Title art used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

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8 thoughts on “DÉJÀ VU

  1. Really excellent stuff.

    I was given Fraser’s Golden Bough as a child about the same time that I started roleplaying and although I found it heavy going and didn’t really finish it, I could tell there was some value to be found in connecting fantasy roleplay to the tropes and images that cut across human societies. That balance between hackneyed cliche and resonant ur-history is a difficult one, but when it works you get that immersive additctive quality of a setting that makes you want to play it, which Warhammer achieved effortlessly for me, from the moment I first set eyes on the pamphlet trailing it in White Dwarf 82…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never read The Golden Bough, but I imagine it is full of great details for fantasy world building. I suppose another classic text along those lines is Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ (which I also haven’t read), though it has perhaps become too well known nowadays.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kim Newman made a similar observation (about writing as Jack Yeovil) that the great thing about the Warhammer world is that it is already familiar, even if you are new to it. In that respect, it is like the Western genre, give us a cactus and a six-gallon hat and we largely know the setting, without having to have it explained. That leaves you free to set whatever adventures or stories you want there (such as one about staging a play…)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In Death on the Reik the cultists Loorbeer and Kuhn are based on Laurel and Hardy (their names are translations). They are not drawn that way, though; Martin McKenna based his drawings on Peter Lorre and Vincent Price. See Death on the Reik, p7 and ‘Secrets of the Warhammer Writers’ in Warpstone 15.

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      1. My goodness I never knew… I’ll have to dig out my old copy of DotR to take a look!

        Are copies of Warpstone available on the net somewhere? I totally missed the bit of WFRP history. Sounds fascinating.

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      2. It’s a pretty brief and obscure reference, to be fair.

        I don’t think there are any official PDFs of Warpstone, but I expect there are unauthorised copies around on places like Scribd.

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