I’ve been thinking recently about the way that gods of war turn up in miniature wargaming settings, and why that’s often a pretty bad idea. (This article is geared towards the needs of a miniature wargame setting, but may provide food for thought for aspiring fantasy authors and roleplayers as well.)

Most fantasy worlds are polytheistic, usually with actual literal deities involved. Why? Because polytheism’s different from our own traditionally monotheistic culture, and so it’s exotic and interesting. Add in the needs of a wargame and you’ve got another layer: variety.

Religion is a great way of a) theming an army of little plastic or metal soldiers, and b) a great excuse to pit against another army of little plastic or metal soldiers. It’s simpler than coming up with complex socio-economic or political reasons why Faction A is fighting against Faction B. This is particularly the case with bad guys. Fantasy loves its evil gods as a motivation for why a particular faction consistently does horrible things. “Yes, I shall ravage your cities and put all your people to the sword because we’d quite like a bit more land on which to graze our cattle, muwahahahahaaaa!” isn’t exactly the most villainous proclamation ever.

Going back to the title, Why Khorne Should Die, the four Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings are essentially avatars of humanity’s dark primal instincts. In the case of Khorne, it’s war, anger, rage and assorted other reasons to hit someone with an axe. As such, the followers of Khorne are generally warriors. So far, so good.

However, Tzeentch, the Chaos god of change, magic, mutation, and the entropic impermanence of everything also exists, and (because this is a wargame) has to have its own armies.

Likewise, Nurgle, who specialises in disease, decay and mortality, and Slaanesh, who deals in sex, drugs and rock and roll, both reflect aspects related to stuff other than straight-up hack-and-slash bloodshed, and yet (because this is a wargame) have to have their own armies.

In a roleplaying setting (which exists in the currently out-of-print Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the five Warhammer 40,000 RPG lines), this varied approach to evil can be reflected in very different ways: Nurgle cultists poison wells or break plague quarantines, Tzeentchian sorcerers summon daemons or cause babies to be born with mutations, and servants of Slaanesh tempt the devout into sin and debauchery.

On the battlefield though, it essentially boils down to killing stuff. You can add flavours to it, through the use of themed magic spells or Nurgle biological weapons or special rules or signature units for each god, but ultimately each Chaos Power looks pretty similar on the field.

A certain logical flaw with all this came to mind when I was painting my fallen dwarf army for Dragon Rampant recently. The general gist of the army is that this dwarven clan had started praying to certain ‘Deep Gods’ who were remarkably similar to the Warhammer Chaos Powers, and were a nasty, corrupt society as a result. Every now and then, I’ve painted a mark of Chaos onto a model’s armour, shield or as a tattoo. However, this was almost always the Mark of Khorne. The only exceptions are for the army sorcerers, who bear the Mark of Tzeentch. Nurgle and Slaanesh didn’t get a look in, because there were no appropriate models for it. Why not?

Because they’re soldiers. These models are soldiers who are on campaign. They live in a polytheistic society and so the primary subject of their devotion at the moment is to the god that helps them kill stuff. Maybe when the soldier goes home, takes off his helmet, and decides to start a family, he’ll pray to Slaanesh that he’ll be good at it, to Tzeentch that he can create new life, and to Nurgle that the child is healthy, but for now, he just wants to not die on the battlefield.

Even if you argue that many or most Chaos worshippers are full-time devotees of a particular god, that counts against armies of Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Nurgle being a thing. Chaos tends to fight among itself as much as against other factions, and Khorne, specialising in warfare, would stamp out any uppity followers of the other powers because that’s just the kind of people they are. Dedicated warriors of Khorne don’t sit down and read books or experiment with heroin or deliberately infect themselves with plague as part of their religious devotions; they slaughter people. As such, they’re better at it. If you wanted to fight for the rest of your life as a warrior of Chaos, you’d devote yourself to Khorne, because that deity more represents the kind of monster that you are.

As a result, Khorne is the one with the best armies. But they’re really, really, boring armies. Nurgle gets biological weapons, Tzeentch gets its sorcerers and Slaanesh gets (in Warhammer 40,000 at least) heavy metal sonic weaponry. Khorne gets axes. That’s it. The bigger the warrior, the bigger the axe. Maybe a mace if his name’s ‘Skullcrush Hammerblow’. Khorne is boring.

So, if Khorne’s armies are both boring and dominant among the Chaos Powers, what happens if we remove Khorne from the equation, and the four Chaos Powers instead become three?

Chaos-infected society is still as violent as ever, because these are horrible, selfish individuals who hate and are hated by sane society. However, without a dedicated war god, religiously-inclined soldiers no longer have a better offer than the three Chaos Powers. The Unholy Trinity finally have Chaos warriors who aren’t just the also-rans who weren’t good enough for the proper Chaos armies, but are actual badasses. Also, those warriors who enjoy fighting? We’ve just found a selling point for Slaanesh that isn’t about desperately avoiding the implied problems Slaanesh worshippers have with consent. So, Slaanesh is now a new Khorne? No, because Slaanesh is far wider than just killing everything that annoys you.

(I actually have another article lined up about how I perceive Slaanesh, based on some comments I made on Tumblr. I’ll get to it at some point.)

This argument’s specifically about the Chaos Powers of the Warhammer settings, but the same general rule applies to any fantasy wargame setting. War gods might be cool (if you didn’t think that, you’d probably not be writing a fantasy wargame), but try leaving them out of your next setting.

An army of warriors is easy, but an army dedicated to the god of craftsmanship, or the god of trees, or herdsmen, or trade, or storms, or mining?

 

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2 thoughts on “Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

  1. I think that a lot of the issues with the ruinous powers, from a world-building perspective, really come down to Warhammer Fantasy Battle / 40K being a wargame first, and a world second. So things get pushed into the very limited mold of “What works well on a battlefield for a tactical wargame?” In the roleplaying games, the setting comes first. The mechanics are just there to facilitate the idea of telling stories in this world, and that opens up very different approaches to everything you’ve covered here.

    My personal take on the Chaos gods has always started with the idea of looking at their opposite; the Empire / Imperium (these are, effectively, the same thing, though the Imperium takes everything to an extreme, whilst the Empire is a little more grounded in a vague notion of history, specifically the late medieval / early renaissance period. For now I’ll just refer to both of them as “The Empire”). The Empire is all about order. It’s about control, about forcing people into a role, turning them into cogs in a machine. In 40K especially the fiction constantly reasserts how little individuals matter, and how harshly any radical or independent thought is punished.

    The chaos gods are the antithesis of that. They are disorder, the literal personifications of anarchy. And more importantly, framed in this larger social context, Chaos is all the people who are unwanted by an orderly society. Tzeentch; the free thinkers, the acid dropping hippies reading Timothy Leary and Anthon LaVey. The wiccans and pagans and heathens and witches and warlocks exploring ideas forbidden by the dominant religion of their society, a religion of order and control that demands that people fit into one specific box. Slaanesh, the hedonists, the pot smoking free love radicals. Nurgle, the sick, the disabled, the crippled, the ones that society would love nothing more than to forget about. Khorne, the Black Bloc anarchists, the rioting mob, the violent punks. The ones who won’t just lie down and take it.

    There’s a particularly interesting exploration of this take on Khorne worship in the excellent campaign “The Dying of The Light” from first edition WFRP, where you meet a daemon prince of Khorne who is forbidden from taking life. So instead he makes people dance, because its the pumping of the blood, the feeling of being violently and passionately alive that lies at the heart of what Khorne is about. He’s not a god of war; he’s a god of rage. He is Tyler Durden with horns and a tail. And yes, this does imply that GW fucked up by giving Noise Marines to Slaanesh. They should have been a Khornate unit all along. Mad Max’s Doof Warrior on steroids.

    Liked by 1 person

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