Weekday rants and reviews of videogames, comics, movies, skateboarding, art, urban vinyl and even playground basketball.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tabletop Gaming: Part 2

The next few entries can be summed up in two words, Games Workshop. Games Workshop was not the first company to focus on miniature gaming but they have certainly become the most successful. Please read the excellent Wikipedia entry on the company. GW is the company that I referenced yesterday, they not only changed the hobby of miniature gaming but went on to influence some of the largest franchises in videogame history. This influence is either missed or ignored by game magazine editors. So when studios subtly or blatantly borrow or steal GW designs they are never reported. This is what kills me about videogame magazines. How can we expect game journalists to be taken seriously if they don't question these things?

For reference I went into my library, I found my oldest (surviving) issues of White Dwarf magazines published by GW and pulled them out along with other rare books. The best part about the magazines were the dedication to the craft. Articles on upcoming games, creating models, new rules and hobby ideas were printed every month. There would also be comics featuring characters like Thrud the Barbarian. I scanned a few pages to share with you along with tidbits of history. You see the cover of White Dwarf #97 on the far left? That's the oldest one in my library, it's from 1987. Do you remember what you were playing 20 years ago? I've grown up with GW and owe you nothing more than the truth. The truth as I see it anyhow...

Imagine if you grew up reading comics and Superman was your favorite character. Now let's say for some reason the majority of videogame players weren't into comics. One day a studio comes along and develops a videogame about a humanoid alien that comes to Earth and embraces the "American way." This human-looking man is bullet proof, has super strength, super speed, can fly, shoots lasers from his eyes and has frozen breath. He wears a bright costume with a cape and goes by the name of SuperDude. The game based on this character becomes a smash hit. It prompts the studio to make sequels and expansion packs featuring characters like the Vigilante Bat, MegaWoman and the League of Super-Powered-People. Very soon the producers are swimming in money, there are trading cards, toys, movies, TV shows, breakfast cereals and even comic books from this series. All the while you are of the opinion that this game is clearly ripping off an established character. Along the way DC comics loses a copyright suit because clearly Superman and SuperDude are not the same person. Your friends get caught up in the hype of the series and when you denounce the games they label you a hater. After months of reading rave reviews about the Legion of Super-Powered-People MMO on 1UP, hearing jokes on South Park and more or less turning a blind eye to the title you have had enough. It's time to pull out the bullshit card.

It's how I feel when World of Warcraft gets pushed in my face by the magazines. The players seem oblivious as to its origins. Let me begin by saying Games Workshop is not the be-all and end-all of the tabletop gaming community. They were not the first and they may not be the best game designers out there. They did however invent and perfect a good chunk of the craft. Let's take a look at one of the biggest contributions Games Workshop has given the world. Their first tabletop game Warhammer Fantasy Battle.

Warhammer is set in a world that is similar to the Arthurian era. There are knights and kings, damsels and dragons. Magic abounds but so do some steam machinations and lighter-than-air craft. There are two large human kingdoms, those of Bretonnia and the Empire.

The Bretonnians are of course similar to ancient Britain while the Empire is an amalgamation of Germanic and French provinces.

Humanity formed alliances with the dwarf and elf kingdoms during the early wars of survival. The first emperor of the Warhammer (WH) world, Sigmar Heldenhammer, united the tribes of man and helped defeat the forces of evil. He was born when a twin tailed comet appeared in the sky, this was seen as an omen in the WH world. This comet has appeared from time to time to signal a major turning point for that universe. You can catch a glimpse of the comet in some early videos for the WH MMO. As you can imagine, Sigmar became a hero and was deified after his death. In the continuity of the WH world there is a Cult of Sigmar that keeps his fighting faith alive.

Orcs and goblins also inhabit the world of WH. The designs of these "greenskins" is possibly the single thing most copied.

I know that GW did not invent the orc, hobgoblin, goblin or troll. What they did do is popularize the design. In essence most orcs and orc variants that you see in videogames are based on old and current GW designs. Side by side here is art from GW and Blizzard, you tell me if there are any similarities.

Aside from the classic characters there are also creatures unique to the Warhammer world. One of the evil races occupying the world are mutated, highly-intelligent rats known as Skaven. The Skaven could be considered the mechanical equivalent of the industrious dwarfs. Their diabolical inventions run on green radioactive "warpstone" which ends up causing almost as much damage to the user as the person being attacked.

Surprisingly enough rat-like characters named "Whiskers" armed with poison green weaponry have popped up in designs by Joe Maduera for a videogame called Dungeon Runner. Those would be pictured on the right. Coincidence?

The other great contribution to character design comes in the shape of chaos warriors. These misshapen men and creatures are representatives of the chaos gods, similar to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from biblical verse. There are chaos gods that admire war or pestilence, they reward faithful subjects with demons and powers. The miniatures for these chaos warriors are among the best ever sculpted. Accordingly, when GW is firing on all cylinders they are also the best painted in the world.

Among the oldest tribes in the WH world are the Slann. These reptile creatures live in a part of the world similar to pre-columbian America. True to form this means that the architecture and weaponry employed by the Slann is reminiscent of Aztec and Mayan culture. The Slann are known for their very powerful mages, among the most powerful creatures in all of Warhammer.

In addition to the evil Dark Elves, there are also armies of the undead, led by the Vampire Counts.

What is interesting to notice is the evolution of the armies in Warhammer. Early skeleton armies were controlled by Necromancers and Vampire counts. While the classic skeletons are still around, new dedicated skeleton armies controlled by ancient Pharoes or Tomb Kings from the south have been introduced to the world.

The subtle changes in army design breath new life into a system quickly approaching 25 years. Check out the classic chariot and the new Tomb King chariot.

Warhammer is great fun and limited only by your imagination. For those that are into a more traditional role-playing experience, GW also offers a fantasy roleplay system set in the WH universe. If, however your imagination is running on empty then try the hobby tips provided in White Dwarf (WD). One of the best features in recent memory were adding ship combat to the universe. The articles in WD included how to make your own ship, custom ship ideas as well as sample campaigns.

To top it off White Dwarf even published rules for using sea monsters with the ship game and how to model these monsters yourself.

Now take a step back and look at the big picture. How long has this gaming system been around? What is it like to see the various races fighting for power? Each race with its own strengths and weaknesses. Its own special units, magic, heroes and tactics. Imagine these armies clashing in a tabletop war. Hundreds of brightly painted characters smashing each other in glorious combat. Imagine what it must have been like to witness these games 25 years ago as a budding game programmer, designer or artist. Squint your eyes if you have to. Is this starting to look like the original Warcraft RTS game?

Warhammer is a grim and serious system, there isn't room for Leeroy Jenkins or MC Hammer dances. WarCraft fans are either oblivious or nonchalant about the origins of the game. Tabletop miniature gamers are serious about the systems, they put a lot of effort into building armies, contributing to the culture and learning the rules. Compare this to the average WoW fan playing online. How mature or immature are they on average? How "dumbed down" are the races, characters and design? The WoW graphics are very animated, the characters are no longer avatars but "toons." It can be frustrating for long-time fans of Warhammer or even Dungeons and Dragons for that matter. Tycho from Penny Arcade is a fan of tabletop gaming and that is why he sometimes snaps at Gabe.

Hey, I'm not going to tell you what to do with your videogame consoles and PC's, just know that on principle I refuse to play WarCraft.

If you haven't tuned me out yet then come back tomorrow to learn about the future of war.


Sam said...

Hey. I found this whilst looking for pictures of Games Workshop armies. I play Warcraft, and I play the Warhammer mmo a little as well. I also used to play Tyranids on the tabletop a few years ago.

You're right that a lot of people in the Warcraft community and many videogame players in general don't really understand where a lot of the fantasy tropes come from, and Blizzard owe Games Workshop a huge debt, especially in their early days.

Nowadays Blizzard have made an effort to try and distance their races from Warhammer mostly through the lore. For a start the Orcs themselves are generally pretty smart and are argurably the 'good guys' of the Warcraft universe. The elves are also subverted. The Night Elves aren't the malicious fiends found in a lot of fantasy have been deliberatly made peaceful and noble, whilst the light skinned high elves have since redubbed themselves blood elves and began to become genuinely more evil. There are also the Draenei (space goats) that as far as I know are an entirely new creation in every respect (which is probably why they were so villified by the community as they came so far out of left field).

Blizzard do owe Games Workshop a huge debt, but in turn, Games Workshop wern't the first to develop skeleton armies or elves.

Dee Dee said...

Ancient Britain? I think you mean medieval England and France.