Armagideon Time

The Warhammer franchises have always been about the “fluff,” those tantalizing snippets of worldbuilding used to spackle gaps in page layouts. Some of the most significant events in its fictional universes — such as the Horus Heresy and Age of Apostasy — grew out of these tantalizing bits of marginalia, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any Warhammer-related publication that didn’t include multiple examples of microfiction and lore scattered through its pages.

The strategic use of fluff has since become commonplace in role-playing publications across the board, but it was one of the things that set Warhammer games apart back in those dim and distant days of the late Eighties and early Nineties. The notion that the fluff-driven lore would end up eclipsing the games themselves would’ve sounded absurd to Young Andrew, but we live in absurd times. A bestselling licensed sci-fi series growing out of designer’s need to meet the minimum word count for a White Dwarf article is one of the least baffling things about our current era.

If it’s weird to me, it’s because I can remember the abortive early attempts by Games Workshop to turn their game-based fictional universes into things in and of themselves. The first major attempt came at the tail end of the Eighties, when GW tried to swipe a page from TSR’s popular line of game-inspired fiction with its own line of game-based paperbacks. Unlike the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels — which could be found for under a fiver at any airport spinner rack or mall bookstore — GW’s efforts were slightly oversized, could only be found at game stores, and ran about ten bucks a pop.

Most of the novels were adequately entertaining genre boilerplate, but were hobbled by the asking price and limited distribution (on this side of the Atlantic, at least). If I’m in a gaming store and faced with the choice between picking up a ten-dollar novel or a fifteen-dollar sourcebook containing ready-to-use material, I’m going to pick the latter. The few books from the line I did buy were purchased a couple years later at a book liquidator place that set up shop in the basement of the old Sears building in Porter Square.

The best of the lot were the ones written by “Jack Yeovil,” a pen name for future Anno Dracula author Kim Newman. Most of these were alt-history cyberpunk/horror mashups inspired by the (in-the-process-of-being-discontinued) Dark Future vehicle combat game, but it was one of Newman’s stabs at the Warhammer Fantasy universe that became the sole standout of the line.

Drachenfels was a gothic fantasy-slash-horror tale about an immortal enchanter (named — surprise, surprise — Drachenfels) who spend his time coming up with fiendishly sadistic ways to torture the denizens of the Warhammer Fantasy world. The story begins with the big bad getting put down by an adventuring party (including an early incarnation of the Vampire Genevieve) led by a young nobleman, who later decides to commemorate his victory with a theatrical re-enactment of the event held at the enchanter’s supposedly abandoned castle.

The novel is entertainingly trashy read which perfectly channels the terrifying lethality and omnipresent dread of Warhammer Fantasy. More than any sourcebook entry or officially published module, Drachenfels communicated what the whole Warhammer Fantasy Role Play thing was about and conveyed it in a way which resonated with fans.

GW, realizing that the book’s popularity could help the turn the fortunes of its somewhat stagnant RPG around, leaned heavily into its backmatter for material. The passenger boat and sanitarium briefly mentioned in the novel got detailed write-ups (alongside some pertinent NPCs) in Warhammer Companion, and the enchanter’s lair itself became the subject of an entire module-slash-sourcebook.

I was given my copy of Castle Drachenfels by a member of my WFRP group who had a connection at a some local gaming store. I offered to reimburse him for the cost but he turned me down, saying I could pay him back by running the adventure for the group. Unfortunately, that’s a debt I never repaid.

The sourcebook was an engrossing (and often just plain gross) read and true to the spirit of the source material, but it was fan service passing a product for practical use. In keeping with the novel, everything in the castle was deadly as fuck.

The bookshelf? Trapped with lethal poison blades. The overstuffed armchair? Possessed by an impalement demon. The novelty door-knocker? Touch it and you’ll explode in a shower of gore.

That kind of thing works in a novel, where the author can just queue up more victims characters as required, but doesn’t make for a fun gaming session after the umpteenth total party kill. It doesn’t challenge players so much as turn them into paranoid neurotics who quadruple check every aspect of their surroundings before taking a single step. The adventure was aimed towards more experienced characters, but that only made the situation worse. It’s one thing to watch a neophyte expire in a pillar of blue smoke after making a small slip-up, it’s another to witness the painfully arbitrary demise of a character you’ve grown attached to over the course of a campaign.

There was no way to really make it work in a way that fit this particular gaming group. Scale back the lethality, and all that’s left is a typical (if slightly convoluted) dungeon crawl. Leave it in place, and the week’s gaming session would be over in fifteen minutes and a whole lot of angry glances. It made me wish the guy had let me pay him for the sourcebook, because my guilt over not living up to my end of the bargain only compounded my angst.

Fortunately, the problem resolved itself when the campaign just sort of disintegrated under the weight of individual schedule conflicts at the beginning of the Fall 1992 semester. The kid who gave me the book never mentioned it again, and I made a point of not bringing it up in his presence. Maybe it was assumed that I’d start up a fresh campaign down the road, which seemed like a safe bet until other circumstances arose.

Drachenfels and his lethal lair would go on to occupy a curious place in Warhammer Fantasy’s ever mutating lore. Though the novel helped establish many of the fictional universe’s signature elements, its place in the “canon” was called into question by subsequent publications. That sort of revision churn isn’t unusual for the franchise, where old loose ends and contradictory bits get chucked down the memory hole and never referred to again. The popularity of Drachenfels, however, made such a move difficult. Not only did it loom large in the imagination of the fanbase, but it was also crafted by a writer who’d moved on to the big leagues.

The novel remained popular enough to net a mass market paperback re-release when GW launched its current push into the realm of multi-media licensing, followed by a new collection of Vampire Genevieve stories by Newman. Instead of being jettisoned from Warhammer continuity, Drachenfels became encysted within it. This led to a weird state of affairs in the official game publications where places/characters/events from the novel were passively mentioned but any discussion about their relationship to the rest of the fictional world was meticulously avoided.

It’s a moot point at the present time, as the Warhammer World has since been destroyed and replaced with some bizarre nonsense designed for maximum trademarking. You can still visit (a really underwhelming rendition of) Castle Drachenfels as a bonus map in the Warhammer: Vermintide videogame, but don’t expect any killer armchairs or anything.

Related posts:

  1. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grim future past
  2. Role-Playing with the Changes: Decline and crawl
  3. Role-Playing with the Changes: Grim and perilous

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