Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

Fantasy Worldbuilding: Why Khorne Should Die

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?


Writing: Formatting Dialogue

Writing: Formatting Dialogue

Someone on Quora asked ‘What are the most common dialogue mistakes writers make that ruin a story?‘, so I generously shared the wisdom of an unpublished wannabe author:

One mistake that I keep encountering among aspiring writers isn’t so much the content of what characters are saying, but how it’s written on the page. It’s a failure to understand the formatting of dialogue, particularly in terms of speech tags.

Single or Double Quotes?

In other words, ‘this’ as opposed to “this”.

There probably is a rule somewhere, written several centuries ago, but in the modern day, it varies from publisher to publisher. Personally, I prefer writing single quotes for dialogue, as it looks nicer on the page. However, since this article has both quoted text and examples of dialogue, I’m going to use double quotes for dialogue here.

The Basics

The key thing to remember is that this is, in a way, a single sentence:

“Everything I say is rubbish. It’s absolutely awful, just like a Dan Brown novel,” said Max.

Sure, there are several sentences within the speech, but that’s irrelevant. As far as the formatting goes, it’s all one sentence. The entire content of the speech, even if it’s John Galt’s 100-page monologue from Atlas Shrugged, can be compressed down to:

“[whatever Max says],” said Max.

In other words, there’s never a full stop/period at the end of ‘[whatever Max says]’, as it’s the same sentence as the speech tag (‘said Max’). Instead, it’s a comma, as the sentence is continuing outside the speech tags.

Remember that basic foundation, and all the extra variations will fall into place.

Oh yes, and the ending punctuation belongs inside the speech marks, not outside.

Shouting and questions

Question marks and exclamations are the most obvious variation (although it’s a good idea to minimise the presence of exclamation marks/points, saving them for when they really, really matter). When there’s a speech tag present, use these instead of the comma, but pretend it’s a comma.

Don’t stress over this bit; your word processing package knows that it’s not really a new sentence when you put a ? or a ! at the end of speech. How can you tell? Because it doesn’t auto-capitalise the first letter of ‘said Max’ and the grammar checker won’t put a wiggly green line under it.

Also, don’t combine the two ‘?!’ except in the most extreme of circumstances. If you’re shouting a question, use a question mark. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” makes clear that it’s an exclamation. “Do you want fries with that?” is rarely shouted, except at the height of the lunchtime rush (okay, so bad example, but the reader will generally assume).

‘Max said’, or ‘said Max’?

As an aside, is it ‘said Max’ or ‘Max said’? Either works, although the unnamed equivalent ‘said he’ or ‘said she’ sound archaic, and so should be avoided, even when writing something set in the past. Of course, if a 15th Century character is saying, ‘said he’ in conversation, then that’s allowed.

‘He said’, ‘she said’

You don’t always need to use character names in speech tags. So long as it’s clear who is being referenced, use another pronoun in place of the name. Usually, this is ‘he’ or ‘she’, but others are available.

This doesn’t just apply to speech tags, but in general narrative as well, but ‘it’ is for a talking door knocker, artificial intelligence or an animal or supernatural creature whose sex or gender isn’t obvious. As a note, using ‘it’ tends to be extremely offensive when used about humans (it’s dehumanising, basically, and is hate speech when used for trans people), and can feel jarring when used about creatures that are virtually human. (I once wrote a novel where about half the character were angels, and used ‘it’ as their pronoun. Bad idea.)

‘They’ usually works as a gender neutral singular pronoun in English, even if its ‘correct’ form is to refer to a group of people. Apparently, Chaucer used ‘they’ for the singular, so there’s that as well.

If it still doesn’t feel right to use ‘they’, think of it this way: someone walks out of the desert, wrapped in mask, goggles and heavy robes, before sitting down at your protagonist’s campfire. The newcomer speaks with a voice muffled by their mask. Your protagonist has no idea if that person is male or female, and thus nor does your reader. You could assume masculinity and use ‘he’ to refer to this figure, but that says more about your protagonist’s prejudices (or, less charitably, yours) than it does about the character. You could use this to surprise the protagonist when the newcomer removes her mask, but that’s tough to pull off without it seeming a bit cliche. That said, it can be done; Brienne of Tarth removing her helmet for the first time in Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire might have been a minor surprise for the reader, but the reveal that she was female was an outrageous breach of propriety for the majority of the witnesses at the tournament. (See Samus is a Girl for examples of this trope in action.)

As an alternative to using names or pronouns, in either speech tags or narrative, you can also describe the person in question. If you have Ned Stark arguing with Robert Baratheon, both parties are male so pronouns have the potential of getting confusing, while ‘Ned’ and ‘Robert’ will get annoying if overused. Instead, refer to Robert as ‘the king’ or similar. If it’s parent and child, use ‘her daughter’ or ‘his mother’.

Pronouns get easier in first person narrative, of course, as ‘I’ cannot be mistaken for any other character. The same applies to the second person ‘you’, although you rarely see that except in Choose Your Own Adventure-style stories or the novelisation of the Space Truckers film. (Although, if I recall, that shifted perspective between chapters, while still keeping a ‘story in a trucker bar’ feel to the narrative by using ‘you’. Quite bold, for a tie-in of a film scoring 5.2 on IMDB.)

Paragraphs and Speech

Every new speaker in a conversation starts a new paragraph. This is entirely non-negotiable. Every single time, without fail. Even if you break every other rule of writing (and writing often involves breaking the rules to achieve a desired effect), this is one that shouldn’t be disregarded. Well, okay, you can disregard it, but make sure you’ve got a damn good reason to confuse your reader and annoy your agent/publisher.

Said, said, said, said, said, said…

Firstly, ‘Said’ is, 90% of the time, invisible to the reader. Don’t worry if it seems to be there too much.

Don’t go through the thesaurus and have a conversation in which characters ‘interject’, ‘argue’, ‘exclaim’, ‘blurt’, ‘sigh’ or even ‘ejaculate’. Sure, sometimes a different speech tag (particularly ‘asked’) is more illustrative of how something is being said, but the reader doesn’t usually notice. As per breaking rules, one of Harry Harrison’s Bill The Galactic Hero novels manages to do a conversation that lasts for several pages, consisting only of dialogue and a different and more absurd speech tag for every utterance. This was, of course, for comedy effect, ridiculing the thesaurus approach.

Helping with avoiding ‘said’ repetition, don’t overuse speech tags. Go without.

Speech tags are only needed when it’s not clear to the reader who is speaking. Ideally, strong characterisation and context should make that clear.

Max raised a hand.

Jordan paused. “Go on.”

“You mean I should just let my dialogue fly naked?”

“Something like that, though I would never phrase it that way myself.”

You should be able to tell who is speaking in that exchange. There was a slight cheat in that the first utterance was in a paragraph about what Jordan was doing (in this case, pausing), but it sets the context up so that the only other speaker is Max, and the only person able to reply is .

This is, of course, harder when there are more than two people involved in the conversation. If Jules was also in the scene, and added, “I often fly naked. I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me,” I’d likely name-check them and then make sure it was clear who was speaking later in the conversation before I decided to drop speech tags again.

Putting Speech Tags in the Middle of an Utterance

Jules’ comment above is pretty long. You could start it with a speech tag (see below for the rules on that), but I’m quite fond of breaking up long dialogue with speech tags instead.

“I often fly naked,” Jules said. “I’ve been banned from El Al, but Qantas still takes me.”

In that version, the speech tag ends the first sentence of the dialogue, and so adopts its full stop/period. The trick is to insert the speech tag early enough that it serves its purpose of telling the reader who is speaking and how – after the first phrase is usually the best spot.

Jordan’s comment earlier could have had a speech tag inserted as well:

“Something like that,” Jordan said, cautiously, “though I would never phrase it that way myself.”

In this example, the speech tag is interjected into the middle of a sentence of dialogue, so it has a comma at the end before the speech resumes.

Putting a Speech Tag at the Start of an Utterance

Going back to that weird grammar lesson example above, if Jules hadn’t paused to give context, but instead there was a speech tag, it gets complicated. There’s two schools of thought on this. The first is that ‘Jules said’ should be followed by a colon (one of these: : ) because the speech is what’s being presented by the speech tag.

Jules said: “Go on.”

The second is that the speech tag is just a part of the sentence and so it should be treated like any other speech tag:

Jules said, “Go on.”

One way or another is probably correct in some grammar book or other, but I’ve seen both used in professionally published works.

I’ve seen it argued that colons should be used for longer utterances, and commas for shorter ones, so the first example wouldn’t be favoured by that camp, but ultimately it doesn’t seem to matter.

Language changes, so this kind of oddity arises.

The Best Advice Anyone Will Ever Give to an Aspiring Author

Read a novel.

Not a self- or vanity-published one (no guarantee of quality control) and not a literary novel (more likely to break the rules for effect), but something published for the mass market by a reputable publishing house.

Take a look at how that author uses dialogue. The words said, the speech tags, the accompanying descriptions, the presence or lack of fillers like ‘uh’ or ‘well’. The best way to becoming a good writer, slightly ahead in my mind to actually writing stuff, is to read stuff.

Originality and Trope Subversion in Fantasy

Fantasy is a genre that frequently re-uses ideas left, right and centre. The Wheel of Time series opened with what was apparently a deliberate paralleling of the opening chapters of The Lord of the Rings. But in every fantasy book, every siege is going to be compared to Minas Tirith or Helm’s Deep (or their portrayals in the Peter Jackson films). Every bucolic dreamland of happiness and light, soon to be encroached upon by a dark and evil threat, is compared to the Shire. Every lone warrior with a penchant for stealing relics that no one else has stolen yet, while demonstrating a rather unreconstructed attitude to gender roles, will be compared to Conan the barbarian (or Indiana Jones, maybe…).

But that’s fine. Ideas get recycled. For better or for worse, borrowing from your predecessors (known as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ if you want to flatter the author you’re stealing from), is part of fantasy fiction.

Sometimes a re-used idea is played straight – the bad guys in Setting A are orcs, who were manufactured as disposable infantry by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination.

Sometimes it’s slightly varied – the bad guys of Setting B are the borks, who were grown from fungi by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination.

Sometimes the re-used idea is subverted – the heroes of Setting C are the orcs, who were originally created as disposable infantry by a dark lord for the purposes of world domination, but things went awry and now the orcs are finding their own way in the world. (I’m thinking of the Orcs trilogy, by Stan Nicholls, and Grunts!, by Mary Gentle.)

Sometimes it’s averted entirely – Setting D has the enemy as just another nation of humans, led by a dark lord, or at least that’s what the protagonist’s side’s propaganda says. (This is something Joe Abercrombie’s very good at in, well, pretty much all of his books, but especially his The First Law trilogy and its follow-up, The Heroes. Similarly, this moral complexity is what Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is built on, even if it does have a dark lord and his army of soulless, okay-to-kill monsters lurking in the background.)

No one really minds this re-use of tropes (to quote, Tropes Are Not Bad), but the chaff piles of fantasy are composed of Lord of the Rings imitators who had nothing new to offer the genre.


Where am I going with this and how does this relate to my own work?

Well, Cold Iron is intended as a subversion of at least some fantasy tropes, while embracing just enough of others to keep the fantasy familiar to the reader.So far in what I’ve written, I’ve got dwarfs, goblins, wyverns, mention of elves, and a pseudo-medieval setting, but the details are different enough (I hope) to push it over the fuzzy line into originality (or at least, non-derivativity). I’ve always had a preference for subversionary fantasy, and like to think that anything I add to the fantasy canon would have at least a little deconstruction.

That said, one of the key rules of writing fantasy  is that anything you come up with a name for, Google the hell out of it, because chances are someone else has already done it.

I missed this rule when I started Cold Iron, because I’m a dumbass.

It turns out, somewhat unsurprisingly when you think about it, that ‘Cold Iron’ is a popular title for fantasy novels and series. From the first page of Google, there’s Stina Leicht’s The Malorum Gates epic gunpowder fantasy series, of which the first book is called Cold Iron, and then there’s D.L. McDermott’s Cold Iron ‘fast-paced, sexy paranormal romance series’, of which the first books is called, yeah, Cold Iron. Interestingly, both of those books are published by different imprints of Simon & Schuster (Saga Press and Pocket Star, respectively).

Perhaps S&S is the place to go to get published, if they’re so fond of the phrase. 😉

Some rethinking is needed.

I’m still clinging, for now at least, to Cold Iron as a series title, assuming that this becomes a trilogy. (Fantasy stories always become trilogies, right? It’s, like, the law of writing. Hmm, is that something else the genre’s inherited from Tolkien?) Possible The Cold Iron Dwarves, but I’m not so keen on that as a series name, even though it does flag up the dwarfiness.

I’m going back to my original plan for each book to be named after Streloc in some way. Currently, I’m working with Streloc Accursed or Streloc the Accursed as the title for the first book, and variations on that for the next two. Streloc Enchained or Streloc in Chains would be a middle book title, although I’m not yet quite sure who’s enchained him or why, and something along the lines of Streloc Ascendant or Streloc of the Cold Iron for the third book, as Streloc takes charge of his destiny or homeland or something.

Of course, this is all still early days. Plotting is still fuzzy, even though I know the general gist of the first book and the vague skeleton and nearly have an end-point for the series as a whole. Anything might change. Streloc Accursed may not even turn into a trilogy.