The Old World is no more, and I for one am happy about it. My introduction to the Old World was the Konrad series by David Ferring, which I remember fondly despite having only read it once in 1990. A typical Hero’s Journey about a warrior in the Empire, Konrad also introduced me to the most interesting part of the Old World: Chaos.
I think it is telling that for a lot of people the Old World was all about the Empire, possibly the least traditionally High Fantasy aspect of the world. The Empire had the standard knights-in-armour, but it also had steamtanks, volleyguns, gryphons and mad counts. At its best – such as in the Mordheim setting – it was evocative of Mervyn Peake – twisted characters and a dearth of heroism.
But overall the Old World was a Tolkien-inspired High Fantasy story – in the literary sense. Elves, Dwarves and even knockoff hobbits lived on a world that – like Middle Earth or Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age – was based on the real world, albeit not in a supposed period of Earth’s history. Chaos – the Michael Moorcock element – was always on the outside, looking in: the barbarian hordes, the existential threat. Sure there were other stories, but Chaos was the big one, and if there was ever going to be a main villain, it would have to be a champion of the Dark Gods.
They finally did it, those maniacs, they blew it up
Moorcock criticised Tolkien (at some length, and for many things) for his sentimental fairytale endings, for ‘going against the grain of his subject matter’ in scenes like the interminable group hug finale of Lord of the Rings. Perhaps this is how Tolkien would have ended the Old World story: a recovering Sigmar sat in his bed, visited by wellwishers. Moorcock, I think, would have blown it all up. The final cull of the Old World’s most renowned heroes was a fitting send off, just in the style of Moorcock, not Tolkien.
The death of the Old World signifies a symbolic shift from the High Fantasy of Tolkien to something else. Warhammer has always been fairly dark, and often included Low Fantasy stories such as Gotrek and Felix, but the world was firmly rooted in Tolkien and the familiar tropes of High Fantasy. The shift away from High Fantasy in recent times is applauded in literature, with authors like George RR Martin, Steven Erickson and China Meiville offering different, darker takes on fantasy worlds. As Richard K. Morgan says: “Tolkien’s general outlook on things is such that in this day and age you can’t really take it seriously as grown-up fiction. It’s full of enormously dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping, highly unlikely military tactics and ridiculously simplistic perceptions of good and evil.”
Dodgy racial and cultural stereotyping is something the Old World inherited from Tolkien, albeit only due to the effectiveness with which Tolkien cemented his mythology in popular culture. Dwarves (or Dwarfs) were appropriated by Tolkien from various older stories, but even ignoring the fact that they apparently perpetuate the idea that people with dwarfism are non-human (compared to a real dwarf like Tyrion Lannister, who proves the exact opposite), they have an odd set of defining traits – beards and a love of beer and gold. Quite how this is the basis for one of the mainstay races of High Fantasy is beyond me but dwarfs in the Old World had only a few original twists, most notably the Troll Slayers. Could Age of Sigmar’s nu-Dwarfs see this aspect of Dwarven culture amplified (and hopefully, some of the other aspects dropped?) The artwork so far suggests a style of fantasy closer to Magic: The Gathering or World of Warcraft, though quite how you are supposed to fit the monster in the header image on your gaming table I don’t know, maybe it will be sold as a costume you wear.
40k already wiped out their Dwarfs, perhaps because calling short people ‘abhuman’, ‘stunties’ and ‘squats’ was a little indelicate without Tolkien backing you up. Just as reading Howard’s Conan saga or Lovecraft’s mythos can be occasionally difficult due to changing cultural sensibilities since the early 1900s, Tolkien’s mythology will eventually go the same way in time – enormously respected sure, well written at times, but also somewhat embarrassing. Unlike Tolkien, Warhammer has a chance to reinvent itself.
What good is an apocalypse without a post-apocalypse?
As everyone knows, the main advantage of having an apocalypse is that we would get to enjoy the post-apocalypse. Many a shopping trip can be blissfully whiled away imagining a supply run in a happier, post-apocalyptic future, and even walks in the countryside can be enlivened by imagining the joy of hunting rabbits across a nuclear wilderness while avoiding cannibals. But what is the point of an apocalypse if there is nothing left afterwards? This was the main question I had upon reading about Age of Sigmar. Why destroy everything? Surely there should be something left, a few hundred years in the future – to provide familiar elements and give a sense of narrative continuity: the ruins of Altdorf strangled by poisonous forest; an Elven child’s doll from Ulthuan washing up on daemon-scarred shores.
The thing is, Age of Sigmar isn’t a reboot, the Old World wasn’t written out of the history books and retconned. All that stuff still exists, just in the past – it’s actually quite similar to the Horus Heresy storyline in 40k: Chaos did pretty well (fair play Chaos) and the golden age is over. It’s not a reboot, but it is pretty close to a clean break.
It’s an excuse to move away from Tolkien and High Fantasy and into something new, something imaginative and something that will be exciting to discover, rather than something familiar. It’s a chance to move away from parodying Arthurian Legend and stories like Robin Hood, and pseudo-real world places and characters. It needed to be a clean break otherwise those freaking Dwarfs would just emerge from their tunnels blinking in the light, grab a tankard of ale, maybe have a bit of a sing and ruin a perfectly good post-apocalypse for everyone. It’s a neat trick, a chance for Games Workshop to have their cake and eat it (which is the only real reason for having a cake). They can pick what they want to continue with or evolve and totally destroy that which didn’t work. And having read the excerpt of the new Black Library novel ‘The Gates of Azyr’ there are hints at some subtle Old World continuity too, I would expect to see more in the future. Plus, the new setting creates a sandbox – it allows players to create their own storylines more easily when magic portals can explain away a lot of logistical complications.
The Black Library novel also describes the joys of a post-apocalypse fantasy world. Humans – scared, normal humans, not golden lightning giants – running from cannibalistic Khorne savages is a good start and I was immediately reminded of the comic series Crossed, a series which made ‘zombies’ fresh (in a manner of speaking) and scary again, no mean feat in a post-Walking Dead world. This is a new take on Khorne that isn’t just a generic evil barbarian horde from the north that will inevitably get defeated, there is potential for something interesting, something darker – and if Khorne can be interesting then all bets are off.
Why do it now?
There are doubtless other reasons for blowing up the Old World beyond just wanting to shake things up a bit, creating more easily copyrighted inhabitants among them. A Dwarf Army Book created at no small expense by Games Workshop undoubtedly boosts sales in other companies too as people hunt out proxies and knockoffs. Conversely, allowing companies like Mantic to produce the predominant Fantasy wargame rules won’t hurt Games Workshop much so long as they are still selling their own superior models. And in terms of proxies, it was surely much easier to find a cheap source of knights-in-armour for an Empire army than it will be to find something that has the same qualities of the Age of Sigmar starter set models.
One thing that I think is relevant is that 28mm is not a good scale for massed infantry battles (anymore than it is a good scale for tactical tank battles in 40k). The room to maneuver is too small and the amount of models required to buy and paint is off putting. The ideal format for this sort of thing is a computer game, and that is exactly what is happening with Total War: Warhammer. The Old World hasn’t died, it has just gone digital, and there is less chance of the computer game cannibalising Fantasy miniature sales if the model range has moved on to a different setting.
The rules of Age of Sigmar (which I won’t go into) also seem to suggest a desire to change to a Magic: The Gathering way of pulling in money with new releases – by asking players to place units one by one there is a reason to buy new units and their countermeasures. Rather than sitting behind the best lineup your Army Book can muster, you can depend on having regular new releases (complete with new warscrolls) constantly available, and an incentive to keep your army updated if you want to be able to respond to the new threats your opponent will place. Cynical or not, this makes a lot of sense.
If Warhammer Fantasy Battle wasn’t selling then Age of Sigmar is a lifeline to Warhammer Fantasy gamers. It’s this or nothing: continuing the status quo wasn’t an option. I have a lot of sympathy for people who feel like they have been let down by the death of the Old World, particularly as this must seem worse the more you had invested in it. But I for one (with my meager collection of Fantasy models, coincidentally already on round bases) am grateful that there is a chance to rebuild the corpse of Warhammer Fantasy, even if it is hard to recognise it in its new cyborg body. And I am particularly excited by the idea of a new Fantasy setting created from imagination, not from tropes. I could be wrong and Dwarfs could be back, same as ever, but I hope not. It’s a gamble sure, but it’s a brave one and a positive one, and it’s full of potential.