Thursday, 1 August 2019

Did the WFB Timeline Ever Really Move Forward? A Look Back

Another day, another dearth of Cities of Sigmar stuff to write about, meaning I've decided to a revisit an old TGA post on the relaxed impetus of the old Warhammer setting. I should really get it out of my system and rebrand as an Oldhammer blog already...

One of the many things popularly cited by fans of Age of Sigmar is its story momentum, with the ramping onward and upward through the Storm of Sigmar, Season of War, Malign Portents and Soul Wars giving an awesome sense of every new release advancing the story of the game. This often gets compared to the previous WFB setting, which was a lot smaller and more fixed, with less appearing to grown and evolve.

WFB's background advanced in fits and starts at nowhere near the pace AoS has. The setting was developed into what's familiar to modern gamers at the tail end 3rd and beginning of 4th edition, with the previous versions of the background having been a bit primordial, with figures that would later become stalwarts like Joseph Bugman and Middenheim occasionally rising out of the goo, only to find themselves adrift in a world of things that wouldn't last, like the cities of Chrystol and Horvenghaast, and The Tragedy of McDeath. With this in mind, I've decided to skip Warhammer's earliest days; if you're interested in the setting's infancy, is currently partway through an amazing series going into the development of the setting from its pre-inception the the launch of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay in way more detail than I ever could.

Terror of the Lichmaster flyer, 1986. Can you guess which of
these three was never offered a job as a Mortarch?

When the setting was out of its infancy with 4th edition, the gist behind the first series of Warhammer Armies books was for the Warhammer Word's established history to be so fleshed out that most games could be comfortably set in the "past", with all the army books featuring massive timelines and having large sections dedicated to "historical" conflicts like the War of Vengeance (War of the Beard if you're an elf), the Great War Against Chaos and Waaagh! Gorbad, as well GW producing models and rules for long dead special characters like Azhag the Slaughterer and Vlad and Isabella von Carstein. It wasn't so much that the "modern" setting was ever static, just that the emphasis was never on it. Empire armies having had the same fashion sense and firing the same cannons hundreds of years before the reign of Karl Franz a little odd, but I guess when a country's  been fighting multiple wars never-ending wars for 2500 years, its culture's going to evolve a lot slower?

This continued through 5th edition with the release of several army specific campaign boxes, most of which were set way back in the setting's past - Grudge of Drong featured possibly the first open conflict between Dwarfs and Elves and was set over 2000 years before the founding of the Empire! The only vaguely notable advancement in 5th edition was Archaon turning up in Champions of Chaos as one of many new Chaos special characters; back then he was just an undivided Chaos Lord collecting treasures on a quest to destroy the world that nobody thought would ever happen.
Dohorgar, Steed of the Apolcalypse, seen here
in a rare photo taken before gym supplements

When the 6th edition of Warhammer rolled out in 2000 with a new generation of games developers at the helm, the design studio had a major change in background policy, focusing entirely on the "present day" Warhammer World, with all historical special characters disappearing from army books* and the timeline slowly inching forward in army books and White Dwarf articles. In the Warhammer Armies: The Empire, the second army book released for 6th edition a new Supreme Patriarch was introduced, Luthor Huss turned up for the first time (though at this point fairly purposeless and not looking for Valten yet), and the Elector Count Marius Leitdorf, a fan favourite special character was killed by an orc warboss during a new battle for Blackfire Pass. GW continued to slowly up the ante advancing the background, with the Dark Shadows/Albion worldwide campaign properly introducing Be'lakor and expanding on the historical background first set up in Mordhiem, the sacking of Miragliano by Skaven in White Dwarf 266 and Eltharion's capture and having his eyes removed by Malekith in the Dark Elf army book and path to rehabilitation in the High Elf book being the most notable.

It was when Hordes of Chaos, the "main" Chaos army book for 6th edition hit that the background advancement at the time really went into overdrive. Hordes of Chaos and the White Dwarf articles from it's release onward saw Archaon crowned Everchosen and ill portents predicting the largest Chaos invasion of the Old World since the Great War against Chaos. In Hordes of Chaos's debut White Dwarf battle report Volkmar the Grim,  the Grand Theogonist (pope) of the Empire lead a hastily assembled crusading army north to nip the invasion in the bud and kill Archaon before he marshalled a large enough army - needless to say they failed, with Volkmar brutally slain and replaced by Johan Esmer, a new Grand Theognist, more concerned with protecting the Sigmarite clergy's wealth than fiery oratory or rallying against a future Chaos invasion.

From here almost every subsequent army book and White Dwarf background article, and even several Black Library novels and the excellent Liber Chaotica series of coffee table background books focusing on the buildup to the Storm of Chaos golbal campaign. This even included miniature releases with Crom the Conquerer making his debut, Be'lakor freeing himself from being crazy for long enough to get a model and Valten getting several models. When Storm of Chaos eventually did hit in  2004 the campaign focused on Archaon's horde fighting their way through the Empire sack to Middenhiem and snuff out the Flame of Ulric, dooming the Old World to eternal winter, with several side conflicts (Dark Elves vs Lizardmen, ect) unfolding in different parts of the Warhammer World so the armies not based in the Old World could feel like they mattered/take part. When the campaign results came in the playerbase obviously liked the setting enough that they didn't want to see it destroyed, with Archaon never technically making it to the walls of Middenhiem on the map based on player results and GW having to fudge the results to get him there in the last couple of weeks, and Crom the Conqueror never making it to the Empire through Sylvania.

Valten's overexposure during the Storm of Chaos buildup
meant he sure got old fast

From pretty much the White Dwarf article concluding the events of Storm of Chaos based on the player results onwards GW seemed to have taken another 180 turn in the background, with the status quo being quickly reset. Archaon had been beaten up by an orc and run off up north, dignity intact to plot his revenge; Valten was killed in his bed shortly after the the Chaos forces were routed by an ambiguously paid skaven assassin and Karl Franz took Ghal Maraz back and continued to rule the Empire; Mannfred von Carstien was told to **** off by a recently resurrected (don't ask) Volkmar, who in the next Empire army book proceeded to take his old job back after Johan Esmer lined his pockets with the church treasury and fled to Marienburg; Garagrim Ironfist was heroically slain after a chaos giant fell on him, finally ending the Kings' of Karak Kadrin's slayer oath for good, only for Ungrim Ironfist to retake the slayer vow out of shame at his son having been killed instead of him. From here subsequent army books and White Dwarf articles had an emphasis on expanding the world, not advancing it, most notably with the release of the first Ogre Kingdoms army book in 2005, expanding a previously pretty minor race in the greater scheme of WFB into it's own distinct army and going into proper detail on the lands to the east of the Old World not involving Chaos Dwarfs for the first time.

The second edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, debuting in 2005 was  distinctly set in the post Storm of Chaos world, with the emphasis of the setting any most of the adventure modules released for it being on the Empire as it recovered from Archaon's invasion. The 7th edition Warhammer army books initially paid lip service the events of the Storm of Chaos and the background advances in 6th as having happened, with the Empire book released in 2006 in particular keeping Marius Leitdorf dead, dedicating a couple of pages to the Storm of Chaos and the events leading up to it, and Volkmar and Luthor Huss' special character entries acknowledging how the events of the campaign had affected them. As 7th edition rolled on however later army books began rewinding the clock on the storyline advancements of 6th, with 2007's High Elves featuring Eltharion with 20/20 vision riding Stormwing and carrying all his old wargear, with no mention of his blinding and retraining; and 2008's Warriors of Chaos only bringing Archaon's story up to his coronation by Be'lakor (though it was accompanied by the reused Storm of Chaos cover art of him fighting Valten so who knows).

One interesting footnote is that when Warhammer Forge (Forge World's short lived dedicated WFB division) initially launched in 2010 it was helmed by no less than Rick Priestly, who appearing at Games Day 2010 set out his plans to tell an alternate story chronically the end of the Warhammer World at the hands of the Chaos Gods, with all the Elector Counts being slain and the Elder of the Moot being named defacto Emperor, Karl Franz's illegitimate son being a dark wizard and all kinds of crazy stuff. Rick Priestly left GW shortly the announcement and the models designed for this grand alternate setting were repurposed and released for what because the Tamurkhan book. Details on this campaign are hazy and I wasn't heavily involved in the hobby when it happened, so if you know anything about it or even spoke to Rick Priestly at Games Day, please please hit me up with more info.

8th edition began by continuing 7th's trend, with the 8th ed Empire army book having no mention of Valten, the Storm of Chaos,  or Volkmar possibly having been resurrected by a daemon to be found (Marius Lietdorf was still dead though so there's that!), but as the edition crept forwards steps to start advancing the narrative began again (though from a pre most of 6th edition/Storm of Chaos fresh start) these happened slowly at first, and seemed to focus on Nagash and the undead, with Arkhan the Black turning up and being up to no good in the Tomb Kings book, and a convoluted storyline  involving Mannfred von Carstein kidnapping the Everqueen's daughter carried through the Vampire Counts, High Elf and Dwarf books. This had many people speculating about the return of Nagash, as a lot of folk had originally assumed that the Warhammer's premiere silver medal arch-villain would get "his turn" at a global campaign after Storm of Chaos. A few Black Library books towards the end of 8th started slowly pushing the plot forward too, with Thorgrim by David Guymer seeing Gorfang Rotgut finally ousted from Black Crag and slain (though not at the hands of King Kazador).

This Nagash has an effort medal

Things started kicking into high gear for the 8th ed background with the release of Sigmar's Blood, a old school style campaign supplement with it's own tie in novel by Phil Kelly, which saw Volkmar ride out into Sylvania, not the Chaos Wastes this to stop Mannfred von Carstein before he could pull off something truly terrible, only to get captured by Mannfred and find out he'd deliberately been lured there to be sacrificed in some horrifying ritual all along (poor guy just can't catch a break in these things); and Warhammer Armies: Wood Elves, 8th's final army book, a large part of which's background was dedicated to a Bretonnia being consumed by a brutal civil war (Bretonnia not having revived a new army book since way back before Storm of Chaos!), with Louen Leoncour's rumoured vampire bastard son (a previously very obscure character who'd only ever appeared in a WFRP2 adventure module), leading half the kingdom and backed by the undead, intent on claiming his father's crown.

This of course lead directly into The End Times, a year long series of glossy, excellently edited  harback booksets chronicling what most people didn't realise to begin with would be the destruction of the Warhammer World, They and their tie in novels are very nice books and manage to tie together a lovely scope of favourites from all over Warhammer History, from Genevieve to King Kazador in a suitably bloody farewell to the setting. Many elements from the Storm of Chaos (Valten, Crom, the Flame of Ulric, Garagrim Ironfist) were reused and incorporated into the story. Josh Reynold's End Times: Archaon tie-in novel, Lord of the End Times in particular went out of it's way to tie up several of the fates of the more obscure WFB characters and is well worth checking out (if you ever wanted to know what happened to Valnir the Reaper then this is the novel for you!).

In memoriam

In conclusion, the Warhammer timeline did advance, just not very often, in part because it was never designed to. When the design studio did decide to advance things, by rolling the clock forward on the apocalypse, or a favourite character was killed, or location destroyed, people would panic about losing the developed world they'd become invested in, and due to the constrictions of the setting (that AoS lacks), and the fact that there was nothing around to replace what had been destroyed. There's a fascinating Reddit post by Tuomas Pirinen, detailing his possible plans to advance the Warhammer World, had he stayed on at the design studio, taking the setting in a brand new direction with Karl Franz having been slain, and replaced by a tyrannical new Emperor, bent on enslaving the rest of the world's races. With this and Rick Priestly's proposed everything-gone-to-pot, mid-apocalyptic Warhammer Forge setting, familiar elements of the background have been irrecoverably changed or destroyed, but their absence has been filled with new and equally exciting evolving developments, and not left as a vacuum.

This is what I think Age of Sigmar is able to get right, and given the new setting's unlimited cosmic scope can continue doing pretty much infinitely, with events like the Necroquake and the opening of a new chamber adding more to the setting without having to take anything away from it first.

*With the exception of Gorthor, who nobody had cared about enough to realise he was historical character when writing Beasts of Chaos (true story!); and of course Tzar Boris who rode a bear and was far too cool a character not to make a model of for the Kislev mini army book. Tzar Boris!

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