Tuesday, 14 January 2014

End of the world

So the cat is among the shit and the pigeon has hit the fans. Apparently a monthly magazine called White Dwarf is being axed and in its place there's going to be a weekly magazine called - er - White Dwarf and a monthly magazine called Warhammer Visions. In some respects this isn't big news. Firstly, it's still just a rumour (albeit one that seems confirmed), and secondly it's more a rejigging of Games Workshop's publication strategy than an outright cull. Most importantly, many would claim that White Dwarf has long been in a state of living death, reduced to the humiliating status of a hard-sell peddler with a below-average command of the English language.

But when an old friend dies (or is at death's door) it often prompts people to reflect upon their own mortality and the increasingly undeniable decrepitude of those who they grew up with. And so the question comes up: if White Dwarf pops its clogs, who will be the next to go?

For Orlygg over at Realm of Chaos 80s the not altogether outlandish conclusion is that Warhammer Fantasy Battle is itself living on borrowed time:
"Just look at the Specialist Range! With that cut, and mostly likely WD next, what is left to go to streamline the company and increase profits for the shareholders? Warhammer Fantasy Battle itself!"

Whiskey Priest at the leadpile seems to agree:
"This is really the nub of the problem. You have two product lines. Both require the same amount of capital input, support, shop space, tooling costs, warehouse space, packaging costs, printing costs, R&D costs etc etc. However, one sells a fraction of the other and it's sales are falling all the time. It's gotten to the point where it's financial viability is seriously in doubt. What do you do?"

Now to be honest, I don't have a position on whether or not Warhammer is going to be sent to the knacker's yard. I'm not well enough informed about GW's business strategy, and although I can sometimes come across a bit grumpy about the decisions they've made, in general I wish them well as they are a British business and an employer that would leave a hole if they were to simply disappear, quite aside from what it would do to the hobby.

But this does lead us onto a slightly different question: could the death of Warhammer even be a good thing? Is the game going out of print something we should actually look forward to? This is Warlord Paul's provocation:
"Won't it be a blessing if Warhammer goes though, really? A curse, lifted?"

That's what I'm going to discuss for the rest of this post.

Paul focusses on the fact that, rules-wise, we already have what we need. The early editions give us the tools for fun narrative play. Get yourself 2nd or 3rd ed and away you go. GW's business model relies on our wanting to upgrade, expand, replace - planned obsolescence. Except, really, the old rules were never truly obsolete. They're still there for anyone to pick up and have fun with, and some would argue that GW's subequent attempts to gild the lily have just killed it.

So I think Paul's is a good point. Oldhammer players have, effectively, entered a parallel universe where new rules releases, new army lists, new gimmicks have very little relevance. As long as we have some old books and some toy soldiers, we don't really need any 'upgrading'.

In that sense, Warhammer's demise wouldn't really trouble us that much. But in terms of whether it would be a blessing, I think there's a bigger point. An albatross that would be taken from around our necks. And it's one that's been hanging there a long time.

Take a look at the 3rd edition rulebook (for some, the epitome of the golden age): on page 189 it asks "Why a Warhammer world?" Why indeed. They answer that "Games are always more satisfying when set firmly within the context of a credible society", and assure us that "Suffice to say, we fully intend to expand the concept of Warhammer to include the entire world, and several supplements are already in preparation"

The message is clear: this is Games Workshop's world, and they're going to flesh it out for you. Don't get me wrong, this is a sensible business strategy. Why a Warhammer World? Intellectual property rights of course. But this makes it quite clear that the players are customers, not creators in their own right. Whose Warhammer world? Games Workshop's Warhammer World of course. Not yours.

Warhammer Armies continues this rot. Although the goal was to provide balanced armies for "tournament gaming", what we're left with is a flat-pack version of a fantasy world where you're given the pieces and all that's left for you to do is assemble them. The effect is a narrowing of imagination, a narrowing that continued apace with the army books of 4th edition and beyond.

For me, this would be the biggest and most exciting opportunity that would open up if Warhammer was to become out of print. It would kill off the idea of an "official" Warhammer world. I'm not saying that people won't look to old publications for inspiration; but why should the map of our own imaginations be coloured predominantly by 'official' merchandise? With the Warhammer IP mothballed, the world in which we actually play our games of oop Warhammer is ours to create and recreate. Sure, there's nothing to stop us already thinking up new worlds, new continents, new armies. Some of us do that already. But by and large we're operating within artificial constraints - an accidental fantasy geography that gave GW something of their own to sell. Time for people to draw their own maps, to create their own lands to imagine and explore.

A new world - indeed, many a new world - awaits.

Let's take this further: imagine GW never produced any more fastasy miniatures (it's easy if you try...) Imagine future players of warhammer fantasy battle had to cast their nets around different suppliers. No more would there be a straightforward one-to-one correspondance between an army list and a particular set of miniatures that stand for a particular unit. No, instead you'd have to mix and match, building up a motley collection from different oop and in production lines. And that collection would be unique, full of new stories - not just an indentikit army. And you'd need to think up new unit types, new rules, for the quirky models that you found from different companies.

The long and the short of it is that the Warhammer World has become a straightjacket. To a certain extent, the oldhammer movement has already set itself free from that straightjacket - it looks for inspiration from the past but isn't (too) subservient towards it. And yet still... the idea of what could happen if the stagnating pastiche that is the Warhammer World died tomorrow... well that's somewhat intoxicating.


  1. A great addition to the debate, well done. Weird seeing my self in quotes! I agree that the WH world has become a limit for a lot of players imagination and the same thing has happened to 40K which is is hugely ironic. I think this goes along with the general death in imagination that can be seen amongst kids. Why think of something cool for yourself when somebody else has already done the hard work for you?

    1. Exactly; however, although I put a positive spin on it here, if I was being more pessimistic I could suggest that if you simply pull the plug in terms of ready made background, people are more likely to give up rather than make up their own stuff. I was struck by Orlygg's interview with Gary Chalk. Chalk says that one of the motivations for the ill-fated Fantasy Warlord project was that "the background [of Warhammer Fantasy Battle] was getting so detailed that there was very little room for the gamer to be inventive". What he goes on to say is a little sobering: "I actually enjoy making up scenarios, war-engines, uniforms and so on that bolt on to the rules for my own games. I now believe that I may be alone in this and this could be one reason why Fantasy Warlord failed. People want to belong to a group where they are one of the boys. They’re one of the people who play Warhammer or Malifaux or whatever, and ultimately it is this community which is as important as the game. They like the in-jokes about the third edition or getting the badges on their orcs to look just like the ones in the magazine. I’m afraid to say, that I don’t really give a damn about this stuff and I can make up my own badges."

      The implication seems to be that a lot of people WANT to copy the 'in house' background and style to be part of a community; and if you offer them the opportunity to be creative and do it themselves, that's a turn off.

      Shame if that's true, really. But it's the flipside to the optimism I display in this post.

  2. Love this article, a great way to expand on the issue. I've been told by defensive 'hobbyists' for some time that our pastime would be nowhere without GW's patronage, at last the message is getting out that they do a lot of harm too!

    1. I think one area in which the loss of GW, or just GW's support of Warhammer, would be a blow is in terms of recruitment. It was through the shops that I got into it, and without that I wouldn't have stuck with it as a kid, and I wouldn't be here. While we veterans are fine, where's the next generation going to join in 'the hobby'?

      That said, I think GW's recruitment strategy right now borders on the unethical, given that it relies on pester-power, and there doesn't seem to be a well developed sense of "will the child who gets this now still be using it in a couple of months time?"... so it could be doing harm as well

  3. I think WFB is, at least, very nearly dead. And I'm not sure that it is a bad thing. But you do want new players to join in the fun, so, unless someone is going to prise a version of the 3rd edition ruleset from GW's iron claws (who didn't even allow Simon Burley to reclaim Golden Heroes from mouldering in their IP hoard), it would be good to have an in-print (even if just in pdf) ruleset available.

    Has anyone given God of Battles a real go yet?

    1. Well there's the thing, if mothballed there's always a possibility that pdfs would be made available, especially as they did that for Necromunda, Mordheim, etc. Here's hoping... although I wouldn't hold my breath.

      No, I've not given God of Battles a go, although I did buy some of the sea elf models. I will have to try it soon, because I have heard some good things. However, from what people tell me it does seem to be directed towards relatively swift battles, and I do think there's something to be said for "slow gaming" over streamlining (that will be the topic of a future post).