Author Topic: Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy  (Read 601 times)


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Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
« on: February 16, 2020, 06:27:50 PM »
Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
By Jubal

So, I came up with the idea for this article a while back and thought I'd finally get to writing it. I've not played Warhammer Fantasy since I was at school, I've never been the greatest lore expert (though I did make a fairly large game mod based on the setting), but nonetheless some characters from that game have really, really stuck with me, whilst others have been largely overwritten or are "yeah, that guy" memories that pale next to more exciting characters who I've encountered since. As such, here's an exploration of seven of the characters that I found most memorable, and what I think you can take from them when designing and writing similar ones. These are mostly the sorts of characters I'd expect as antagonists in most settings, but I think that's fairly inherent to Warhammer - most people in that setting are objectively horrible, and as it's a wargame most characters are really meant to be generals and power figures rather than solo adventurers. So let's see how some of them shape up:

Richter Kreugar

The cursed company, via Lexicanum.
The tragic tale of Richter Kreugar, a gold-grabbing mercenary who betrayed his necromancer patron and was then cursed to roam the earth fighting for all eternity with a band of those he cut down while doing so, is… basically just absolutely fantastic.

There’s a strong sort of folk-horror vibe about Kreugar, and for my money he’s possibly the most horrifying character in WHFB. Sure, there are chaos horrors and spawn who lumber as horrendous balls of mutilated angry flesh, and there are great armies of zombies, but Richter and his band are worse for a couple of reasons. One of the key elements of horror is creatures that you don’t want to be like, as much as creatures who are viscerally frightening for one reason or other. There are lots of examples of that in Warhammer though – aforementioned undead or chaos spawn, for example. What makes it worse with Richter Kreugar is that he is sapient and moreover got his curse doing an arguably good act. (Sure, he may only have switched sides and murdered his paymaster because of the promise of a big pile of gold, but even if he had done it for good reasons, the result would’ve been the same.) In the Warhammer setting, life is sometimes just horrible to you.

Richter Kreugar is also really easy to mythologise, far more so than most other characters in WHFB generally. Sure, your dwarfs might speak in awe of Thorek Ironbrow’s runic talents, or your Brettonians might speak with hushed tones of the legends of the Fay Enchantress, but when it comes to telling tales in a smoky tavern late in the evening, Richter Kreugar provides a proper ghost story of the sort that’s curiously lacking elsewhere in a setting that manages to have two entire factions of undead in it. You could even write a traditional UK-style folk ballad about him without any problems, a point that I can prove on account of literally having done so whilst writing this article. As such, I think he's a fantastic example of how to make a horror character who works in a fantasy setting and adventuring setup whilst still being horrifying - that folk-horror borderline is a good place to find things along those lines.

Aenur, the Sword of Twilight

Elves often aren’t very exciting. There, I said it. And I didn’t just say it because I’m a dwarf fan. In most fantasy settings, elves are fairly predictable – they hang around in woods or mysterious ancient cities, they are snooty or otherworldly or sometimes just Mary-sue level good, etc.

Now sure, Aenur, the one elf character in original Mordheim is still snooty and standoffish. But taking the elf out of the forest and putting him into a ruined city suddenly makes him actually far more interesting, as does making him a singular special character in the whole game. Being able to suddenly dart from the shadows, carve up some evildoers with his longsword (still elven, but none of that dainty ethereal bow nonsense), and then vanish again makes him a fanastic swashbuckling man of mystery.

I think this says a lot of useful stuff about how to make elves interesting. Making them rarer definitely helps a great deal, so you get the “oh, shoot, that’s an *elf*” reaction appropriate for a dying cadre of superhumans rather than the usual groans you get when elves are just a slightly more annoying part of regular society. I’d even say there might be an advantage in cutting elves right down to the odd named character – you still get to display all the good stuff and it doesn’t get wearing so fast. The other thing Aenur shows is that there’s a lot of roles – in his case, ruined city’s swashbuckling mystery hero – that elves are really cinematically good at but don’t actually get put in that much because they’re all pigeonholed into being wizards or rangers. A solid character all round.

Borgut mini. Painted by Clover via CoolMiniOrNot.
Borgut Facebeater

Borgut is a good reminder that there’s a certain level of charismatic leadership that needs a functional subordinate to really function – in this case, that of Grimgor Ironhide, the mightiest Orc in the Warhammer setting. Borgut is his second in command and general tough, enforcer, herald, go-between, etc. The concept of a bodyguard doesn’t quite work for the greatest orc fighter of all time, but if Grimgor had one, it would be Borgut.

Borgut is a mighty warrior in his own right – savage in battle, tough as nails, brutally powerful – and, fundamentally, he’s an orc’s orc. By epitomising everything we think of as relating to orcs, he becomes the orc equivalent of an everyman character. In turn, then, Grimgor, despite in many ways being similar to Borgut in the role of “Orc turned up to eleven,” gets his differences to other orcs and orc society displayed in ways that would be impossible if Borgut wasn’t there. Borgut provides the layer and therefore the necessary distance between the practically worshipped figure of Grimgor and the ordinary greenskins of his horde, allowing the senior orc to seem further above his subordinates than would be the case otherwise. Grimgor’s cunning and mythical status are greatly accentuated by the fact that he is able to remain somewhat distant – doubly so in orc society, where ‘eadbutting your opponents into submission is a usual way of restoring order. Having someone powerful enough to do that all for you, who you have effective complete control over, is a power move beyond what orc social structures would usually allow.

Borgut is a really good example of how well written subordinates can really accentuate a leader’s personal features: the purpose of subordinates shouldn’t just be to be the weaker second challenge you take on first, it should be to underline who their leader is. By helping both prove Grimgor’s toughness through comparison to himself, and allowing Grimgor’s distancing from his horde and maintaining his mythos, Borgut Facebeater does that very well indeed.

Literally Any Blood Dragon Ever

Arguably it’s cheating that this isn’t an individual character, but the WHFB development of the vampiric bloodlines was genuinely, to my mind, very solid, and allowed them to explore different bits of the vampire archetype in a way that made some sense – the different lines had, passed down through them, different approaches to what it meant to be a vampire. The shady aristocratic Von Carsteins, the tragic ghoulish Strigoi, the mad magician Necrarchs, and so on.

And then there’s the blood dragons, who’ve worked out that there is a way to stop craving human blood – and that’s to drink the blood of a dragon. Now, the minus side of that is that it means killing a dragon, which isn’t easy to do. The plus side of that is that bam, character motivation for training to be immensely good in combat duly established, and coupled with the sort of warped knightly order style they adopt, this makes for a very good alternative take on vampires.

Blood dragons may be evil, but their primary motivation is to relieve themselves of the curse: they’re fighting you for the training challenge more than for domination or your blood. They can be given a sense of fair play that would be out of place with a Von Carstein/Dracula style vampire: if you’re going to die easily, there’s no point in fighting you to begin with, so a Blood Dragon will absolutely let you catch your breath and draw your sword before the combat starts. This also makes them antagonists who can be reasoned with – they have a deep inbuilt goal of their own which you might not necessarily just be there to hinder.

It’s an idea, the vampire as honour code driven monster slayer, that’s sufficiently non-standard that it works very well. One important thing I think we get from this is that secondary character goals shouldn’t always be either for, or opposed to, those of the protagonists: some of the most interesting evil characters aren’t those you obviously have to kill or be killed by, it’s the ones who have their own goals which will entangle with yours in interesting ways.

Lumpin Croop

Lumpin Croop's Fighting Cocks. As painted by Battleground Hobbies.
If you thought I was going to miss out the chance to talk about Lumpin Croop in this article, you have presumably either never met me or never heard of Lumpin Croop – and if you’re in the latter category, let’s change that fact. Lumpin Croop is a Halfling mercenary who leads a group of his species called the Fighting Cocks. Their banner is a weathervane, and they’re just wonderful to place as models on a gaming table in front of a usually suitably bemused opponent.

Lumpin’s backstory is as a poacher who, captured by a gang of gamekeepers, who got out of it by quickly spinning them yarns of adventure and a mercenary life, which they enthusiastically (and rather Tookishly) jumped at. Since then he’s been trying to give them the slip and run away home, but this only hones their by now expert tracking skills.

The fun thing with Lumpin Croop is not that he’s a different take on a Halfling, it’s that he’s an absolutely standard take on a Halfling in a setting that otherwise isn’t sympathetic to that type of character at all. In a setting that pushes to a certain extreme, as classic Warhammer arguably does with pathetic-aesthetic horror and misery, being able to hold a character like Lumpin Croop up does two important things. Firstly, it holds a mirror up to the setting, and we can see how a relatively “ordinary” character survives in it. Secondly, it lightens the gloom. Both of these are important and good for helping maintain the connection between the user/player in the setting and the main body of the setting itself. We can imagine ourselves as Lumpin in a way that isn’t true of, say, Karl Franz or Archaon the Everchosen or Greasus Goldtooth, and that to some extent both exacerbates and relieves the world around him.

Skarsnik and Gobbla

The Night Goblin warboss par excellence is Skarsnik, warlord of the former Dwarf hold of Karak Eight Peaks, who inflicts repeated defeats on the tiny dwarf garrison and keeps them effectively holed up in a tiny remnant of their former hold. In the chaos of Greenskins society, Skarsnik’s rise from underling to the greatest goblin warlord the world has yet seen has been largely down to a mix of cunning and ruthlessness. Alongside him is a giant cave squig called Gobbla, who is his pet (for the uninitiated, squigs are large fungal bouncing balls of teeth which some particularly mad night goblins tame or even ride).

Gobbla is every bit as important as Skarsnik – and the lesson I’d take from this is that designing antagonist type characters as a team can really work. Gobbla tells us a huge amount about Skarsnik and about how he sees himself – this powerful warlord could have, say, an enslaved Black Orc, inverting the usual power divisions in Greenskin society. Or a giant underground spider, given a general creepiness feel (at least for most people – I find spiders cute, but I’m aware it’s a minority view). But no, Skarsnik has this unpredictable ball of vaguely fungal mass with huge, huge teeth which he somehow keeps under control by feeding it on pretty much. It’s that edge of psychedelic craziness that tells us a lot about Skarsnik: that he’s very willing to dabble in the unpredictable and horrifying,

The good take-away here I think is that the monster is hugely relevant to the boss. A cunning goblin warlord is, in and of itself, not a surprising thing – “cunning” is pretty much the first goblin warboss trait in the book. Gobbla however gives Skarsnik his edge of night goblin mania. He’s not a long term, calm strategist, he’s not a revolutionary, he’s directing the enraged, chaotic energy of his forces right in the moment with a skill and unpredictable frenzy that makes him the sort of character he is.

Borgio the Besieger

Absolutely hands down one of my favourite WHFB characters, and the one who inspired me to write this list. Borgio “the Besieger” of the northern Tilean city of Miragliano is a city-state general with a great expertise in siege warfare and a host of abilities making him difficult to kill. By and large a Renaissance Man on steroids apocryphally capable of riding and reading a book whilst technically asleep, and a general much beloved of his men, Borgio is an all round solid late-medieval-Italian archetype character, right down to finally eventually being killed in his bath with a poisoned toasting fork.

It’s Borgio’s mace that really gets to me as the thing that makes him a fantastic character, because it tells us so much about him. It’s reportedly made of a cannonball that Borgio was hit by, but survived. That’s a cool starting point of course, but you then realise that the meaning goes much deeper than Borgio being the tough that nails general that others aspire to be. The sort of person who gets hit by a cannonball and survives is one thing. The sort of person who has that cannonball forged into a mace, makes sure everyone knows the fact, and wields it very prominently, is someone who is concerned with actively building his own legend. Borgio the Besieger’s actual toughness stat is a decidedly just-above-average four. His legend, however, is significantly bigger.

I think the interest in Borgio and characters like him comes from the fact that that they encourage us to separate thinking about a character’s abilities from people’s perception of their abilities, and realise that both things genuinely matter. Much of being the “world’s greatest” at something is about being very good at it but also then promoting that very effectively. This is a trope about as old as history in some ways – most of Odysseus’ classic adventures with the cyclops and so on are narrated in the Odyssey by the eponymous character itself – and I think considering how heroes construct or help construct their own legend often helps to make particularly prominent characters more interesting and helps readers or players question what they think they know about them.

I hope you enjoyed this quick run-down of these characters - please comment below if you have further thoughts, found this useful, or would like to see more articles like this! As ever, if you have something you could write for us, just check out our submission guidelines and give us a shout.
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Re: Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
« Reply #1 on: February 19, 2020, 04:03:57 PM »
Another enjoyable read Jubal, I especially like the sound of Lumpin Croop. The idea of an accessible, out-of-their depth character who provides the audience with a window into an otherwise very complex world is something I've been thinking about recently. My brother recently read some Sherlock Holmes books and noticed that Watson fills this role - right down to being treated very badly by Sherlock.

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Re: Characters and Why They Work: Warhammer Fantasy
« Reply #2 on: February 19, 2020, 09:27:59 PM »
Very nice article Jubal!

Also, Borgio has always been one of my favorite characters in WHF.
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