Zhu Bajiee / January 14, 2019
In its current and most popular incarnation, Warhammer—a brand of tabletop sci-fi and fantasy wargame that has been published for 35 years—is readily associated with alt-right memes of the God Emperor. In this grim universe, fanservice fetish dolls stride across battlefields in bikinis, cast-iron bustiers, and kinky boots to wage eternal war alongside dehumanized, hypermasculine tanks. Warhammer is held up by the far-right as a shining example of a fictional property that enshrines the authoritarian ideal of “might makes right” and encapsulates an exclusionary worldview that seeks to justify intolerance and violence against the Other while enforcing strict social hierarchy, making mockery of egalitarian values and ideas of social progress. Yet it was not always thus…
The dominant female image in fantasy gaming in the 1980s, as now, tended towards the overtly sexualized. Countless magazines, such as TSRs Dragon and Games Workshop’s White Dwarf, portrayed women as sexy warriors in chainmail bikinis, or as passive victims in desperate need of rescuing by some grunting, mighty-thewed barbarian. One thread of this representation of women is the sexy-but-dangerous image of the Dark Elves, or Drow, as they were known in Dungeons & Dragons—a game that dominated fantasy gaming throughout the early ‘80s and was an instrumental influence on Warhammer. Examples include the D&D adventure module Vault of the Drow (1978) with its wonderful psychedelic cover art by old school maestro Erol Otus, displaying a whip-wielding Drow priestess in ornate metal armor that strongly emphasizes the breasts; the back cover, from the mighty pen of Jeff Dee, features a nude female succubus. Otus’s portrayal of the demoness Lolth in a spider web bikini in module Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) is equally iconic. Drawing on traditional sword-and-sorcery archetypes, such as Dejah Thoris from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sword-and-planet saga John Carter, such imagery has been deeply entrenched in mainstream fantasy, from Frank Frazetta’s voluptuous women warriors and Evil Lyn of the Masters of the Universe franchise to the Night Elves of Warcraft and contemporary incarnations of Warhammer‘s Witch Elves. While the D&D game describes Drow society as matriarchal, where females hold dominant leadership positions, the nature of the imagery is entirely determined by the male gaze, rendering the feminine body as spectacle, reducing the idea of female power to the male fantasy of the dominatrix.
In Warhammer supplement Forces of Fantasy (1984), on the other hand, we see a Dark Elf female not as cunning seductress, but as a fearsome warrior slicing the head off a monstrous eight-headed Hydra, in combat-appropriate (i.e. full-length) chainmail armor, illustrated in striking black and white by Tony Ackland, the artist responsible for much of the look of early Warhammer. The center page spread, which also forms the cover for The Book of Battalions, features female Dark Elves—similarly depicted in full armor—fighting Orcs alongside their male counterparts, represented as their armed and armored equals. The text in Forces of Fantasy makes it explicit: “Dark Elf soldiery is as likely to be female as male; Elf maidens are as cruel and murderous as their menfolk.” This aspect of gender equality, in both text and image, radically subverts established conventions of the fantasy genre. While there are certainly examples of cheesecake or pin-up art, these tend to be non-warrior types such as magic-users. In the early Warhammer oeuvre, the transformation of the Dark Elf from sexy dominatrix to serious combatant is a departure that establishes a tone of equality in terms of representation and ability.
With The Legend of Kremlo the Slann by Richard Halliwell, published in First Citadel Compendium (1983), Warhammer moves from deliberate egalitarianism to deconstructing myths of colonialism. The titular hero Kremlo is a member of a race of humanoid frog-men called the Slann. These amphibious beings inhabit an area of the Warhammer setting called Lustria, roughly analogous to South America. Far from being natives, the Slann are instead descendants of ancient aliens. The concept of alien presence in pre-colonial South America owes much to Erich von Däniken’s ancient astronaut theories postulated in his best-selling Chariots of the Gods? (1968). But whereas Däniken’s ancient alien theory serves to uphold a fundamentally racist ideal of colonial superiority by claiming non-white, non-modern peoples were unable to develop art and architecture of their own, instead receiving remote assistance from unknowable aliens, Warhammer replaces the colonized natives with the extraterrestrials themselves.
Further detail of the Slann is published in the inaugural scenario for the second edition of Warhammer, The Magnificent Sven (1985). Gurggl Greenwake’s tribe of Slann presents an entirely sympathetic rendition of victims of colonialism:
The peaceful lives of their ancestors have ended. They have grown up in a dangerous world where their friends and relatives have died in droves. Many suffered violent deaths in the successive decades of adventuring raiders. They have seen the remnants of their Empire rolled back to a tiny portion of its former territories. Now they find themselves outlawed and hunted down in their own homelands.
The Slann are not the faceless, ignorant monsters of the similarly frog-like Aztec-themed Bullywugs in D&D adventure The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980), who exist only to be killed and looted by the players. Instead, Warhammer encourages the player to see the Slann as motivated people with legitimate grievances, with the understanding that they are victims of colonial persecution. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Slan, a 1946 novel by A.E. Van Vogt, is about a race of psychics persecuted by the wider human society.)
Warhammer does use the Slann to sublimate the identity of historical South American peoples. On the surface this is inherently problematic. Replacing real historical peoples with monsters while keeping the material trappings, costume, armor design, and so on echoes the worst aspects of dehumanizing propaganda. But Warhammer, through both Kremlo the Slann and The Magnificent Sven, then proceeds to do something quite progressive in those pre-Avatar times: portraying the primitive Aztec alien frog monsters as sympathetic creatures with motives, feelings, history, and expressions of their own. On the one hand, we can see that the identity of historical South American peoples is entirely written out of the pseudo-historical fantasy world in ways that European peoples are not. On the other hand, the experience of the subjugated people are communicated without conforming to reductive and essentialist ideas about race, and thus avoiding Gayatri Spivak’s “epistemic violence” by replacing images of native bodies with fantasy monsters.
In contrast and conflict with the Slann we have the Norse, a fantasy barbarian version of 10th Century Vikings, replete with massive beards and completely ahistorical horned helmets. By transposing the European invasion of South America by Hernán Cortéz in the 16th Century with a fantasy re-imagining of Leif Erikson’s 10th century landing in North America, Lustria invites parallels between the colonization of South America with the Migration Period of British history. “Skeggi,” the name of the Norse settlement in The Legend of Kremlo the Slann, is common slang for the northern seaside town of Skegness, whose name is derived from Norse. Lustria parallels its exotic Lustrian natives—the Slann—with ancient British natives, and portrays the Viking-Norse raiders as the common invaders, creating empathy between the two native peoples. Rather than reproducing the colonialist myth of white Europeans being a benevolent civilizing influence, this allows the colonists to be seen as savage villains.
In the Legend of Kremlo the Slann, our bulging-eyed alien hero Kremlo is found alone as an infant frogling and adopted by Harold Stoutback, the chieftain of the Norse village of Skeggi. This act serves to humanize the Norse from their popular characterization as masculine aggressors, the mindless perpetrators of rape and pillage, to more rounded human beings able to express nurture and care. As notable 10th century Persian scholar Ahmad ibn Rustah wrote, “They [Norsemen] have a most friendly attitude towards foreigners and strangers who seek refuge.” Such open mindedness to those of other cultures runs counter to the doctrines of far-right race theorists such as the Nazi ideologue Hans F. K. Günther, who popularized an entirely fabricated image of the Nordic race as an idealized symbol of white supremacy. Simultaneously, Kremlo’s adoption by Stoutback usurps conservative gender roles, with the male chief enacting the supposedly female role of nurturing infants (i.e. Pharaoh’s daughter finding and rescuing the infant Moses). This might not seem quite as novel now, as media such as the television show Vikings and the video game God of War have further expanded popular concepts of barbarian masculinity, but in 1983 such depictions of the Nordic Viking barbarian were virtually unheard of.
After the death of Stoutback, Kremlo is begrudgingly accepted as the leader of the village. Only his adopted younger brothers openly resent Kremlo’s leadership, and this is as much aristocratic sibling rivalry as anything else. The white supremacist dream of the proud Aryan-Nordic with his racially superior natural leadership ability is casually obliterated by codes of honor that transcend racial boundaries. Kremlo then wreaks genocide upon his own tribe of BlueSpineSpick Slann in revenge for the killing of several of his adopted culture’s fishwives—returning loyalty to his adoptive society, not to his race, eschewing ideas of racial essentialism.
In The Magnificent Sven, the Norse village contains a diverse group of adventurers. Unlike Tolkien’s archetypal Fellowship, drawn from the upper echelons of Middle-earth society and its loyal man-servants, called together in a time of great need to do great deeds, the cast of Sven are a bunch of lowly drifters just passing through: Juggo Joriksonn, a berserker punk dwarf; Aygar, an agoraphobic human wizard; Raidocks Timwilt, a failed hobbit chief; Karl Ustracutter, one-legged Norse treasure hunter; Riolta Snow, professional Sea Elf sportswoman on holiday in Amazon country; and Karra Lakota, a pink-haired lesbian Amazon. However, while the adventurers do provide diverse representation of gender, class, sexuality, and mental and physical ability, there are no characters that are visually identifiable as non-European.
The Amazons of Warhammer were introduced in The Second Citadel Compendium (1984), the cover of which features dramatic wrap-around cover art by John Blanche, whose blistering drawings still forge the imagery of the game today. Depicted are pink-haired, non-sexualized, technologically-advanced lesbians defending their lands from scruffy, furry-booted, patriarchal Norse invaders. The Compendium‘s scenario Rigg’s Shrine, written by Richard Halliwell, goes some way in detailing Amazon society: entirely female, living peacefully beside the Old Slann, becoming custodians of their advanced alien technology after the Slann Empire fell. The scenario sets up a gendered dichotomy between the devoutly religious, peaceful, and advanced feminine Amazons with a brutish, aggressive, masculine group of Norse Raiders.
The visual design of the Amazons seen in the illustrations by John Blanche and Tony Ackland, and the miniature design by Michael and Alan Perry, portray the Amazons with pink-dyed mohawks, wearing high-necked tunic dresses and ankle-length robes. These designs are more akin to punk fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s 1980s collection “Nostalgia of Mud” than the chainmail bikinis and big hair of ‘80s fantasy warrior women, thus reinforcing Naomi Wolf’s notion of the “beauty myth”: the feminist recognition that only conventionally beautiful women are allowed to be of value in patriarchal narratives. The Amazons clearly take design cues from Native Americans: the Mohawk from the Mohawk tribe, and intransigent punk Karra Lakota who’s named after the Lakota People. The naming convention continues the tradition of reference set by post-punk pioneer Siouxsie Sioux through Westwood’s partner and punk svengali Malcolm McLaren’s bands Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, connecting Warhammer to a wider framework of post-apocalyptic pop-primitivism.
Like the Slann in The Magnificent Sven, the Amazons of Rigg’s Shrine are not removed from the context of being robbed by colonialists, nor do they conform to the Pocahontas myth of Native American women. One example of the contemporary references in The Magnificent Sven is that Karra herself is on the run from her sisterhood after attempting to assassinate the head of state—the Queen of the Amazons—at a time when the British prime minister and the current monarch were both women, providing an image of what is clearly an anti-establishment figure as an unabashedly heroic character.
Still more of Amazon society was developed in the Bestiary book of Warhammer Second Edition (1985). Warhammer Amazons reproduce “parthenogenetically”—without the requirement of a male. This is completely unlike Strabo’s account of the ancient Greek Amazons, who reproduce in the usual human method with the neighboring Gargarean tribe. It should be reasonably clear from this fact that Warhammer Amazons are all lesbians. Not only do Amazons fully inhabit the traditionally exclusively male roles of priest and soldier, they biologically do not need men at all.
That is not to say that early Warhammer is entirely subversive in its depiction of fantasy races. Many reproduce the tired Eurocentric cliches without irony or satire. Old Worlders, from the “technically and socially primitive” (11th century) to the “advanced” (15th-16th century); Norse, who “live for War and for alcohol”; Arabians, whose “religious dogmas prevent them from developing either socially or technically”; Steppe Nomads, “not as primitive as one might imagine”; “Orientals,” who comprise the “largest single population of humanity”; and finally, Other Humans, a category that includes “Black-skinned Southrons of the South-lands and red-skinned natives of the New World. Both of these groups are very primitive and have little contact with any of the major races.” While these descriptions appear to enforce stereotypes, the words “primitive” and “advanced” are used almost exclusively to describe the development of arms and armor rather than culture. The real problem is that, having defined these peoples in the fantasy setting, Warhammer then sidelines them into complete obscurity.
There is some logic to this. Warhammer began life as a way for Citadel Miniatures to advertise the figures they made, and the pseudo-historical factions such as “Arabians,” “Orientals,” and so on simply represent the historical miniatures they made. Had Citadel made figures for Old West wargames (a popular genre at the time), then no doubt New World Natives would have been included; had Citadel produced figures for the Ghana empire or even the Biblical Ancients wargaming period, then we may have seen armies of African descent. The Pygmies—who fall halfway between grinning cannibal golliwogs and dark skinned hobbit folk in mock Zulu garb—became somewhat recontextualized by the Afrofuturist Floating Gardens of Bahb-Elonn scenario in White Dwarf #100. This isn’t to excuse the omission; in the more than 30 years since, no attempt has been made to redress this imbalance. Nonetheless, the early focus on Lustria as exotic fantasy, as well as the deconstruction of the status quo colonialist framework, gets left behind in favor of a more exclusively Eurocentric fantasy heavily indebted to the worlds of Tolkien and D&D.
The theme of fantasy diversity surfaces again in the Warhammer campaign supplement The Terror of the Lichemaster (1986), a grisly tale of an undead uprising in the Alpine valley of Frugelhofen. Much of the sensibility here reflects that of the English Gothic cinema (think Hammer or Tigon films in the 1970s): remote European locations and sinister overlords, revolting peasants with pitchforks and flaming torches, and the Lichemaster himself: Heinrich Kremmler, the foul Necromancer who summons his army of undead. The name is clearly a pun on both Heinrich Himmler, the Nazi occultist, and Heinrich Kramer, witch-hunter and author of the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”), published in 1487 as a handy guide to the persecution of scapegoats during the Inquisition. Heinrich is very much a two-dimensional caricature, with little more motive than to unearth the evils of the past and destroy all life that stands in his way. Any philosophy or motive that might drive him to genocide or to muster an army of undead—unthinking automatons whose only task is to follow orders—are unexplored, and the player is expected to play him very much as a Saturday morning cartoon villain, not a complex mirror of real world hatred and bigotry.
This Halloween ghoul of far-right lunatic occultism, attended by his legion of skeleton warriors, are set up against an unprepared population of hardy miners and goodly farmers, symbolically the hammer and sickle of the communist worker-peasant alliance—who are, of course, the good guys in this scenario. Once again, the worthy proles are a multicultural bunch, including Grimwald Calaco, explicitly labelled an anarchist; Albi Schutz, the ex-wrestler; Gim Grundel, the halfling runaway; and Antonio Epstein (half Italian, half Reiklander, from Albion), whose name and identity call to mind his namesake from The Merchant of Venice. In that play, Bassanio, Antonio’s friend (and perhaps the object of Antonio’s own desire) is romantically pursuing the wealthy Portia. In The Terror of the Lichemaster, this role is played by the elf Riolta Snow. It is notable that Snow becomes a recurring character, almost a female lead within the early Warhammer milieu, appearing in The Magnificent Sven, Lichemaster, and Ravening Hordes. While descriptions of her focus on her beauty, her depictions avoid overt sexualization. We are told that “as a woman” she travels freely in Amazon lands, that she is attractive, that she “especially” impresses the punk Amazon Karra Lakota, and that she is completely indifferent to the romantic overtures of Antonio Epstein. She’s also described as having the quite annoying traits of the upper classes, being both condescending and not a little camp, referring to people as “sweetie” and to things not to her taste as “gauche,” preventing her from being overly idealized.
More bold women and Shakespearean allusions surface in the campaign set The Tragedy of McDeath (1986). An obvious pun on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, McDeath has three main female characters: Lady McDeath herself—an even more villainous analogue of Lady Macbeth, albeit in a goth, spike-and-chain version of Elizabethan dress; Julia Laird of the McEwmans, a leader portrayed as sensibly clad in combat armor, who seems to counterbalance Shakespeare’s villainess by providing a positive example of female power seeking justice for the murder of her father; and Sandra Pangle, a “squire” who is also sensibly attired and prepared for medieval combat. Much of McDeath explores Scottish stereotypes: violence at sporting events epitomized by sectarian football conflicts frequent at the time (i.e. the Scottish Cup Final in 1980), whiskey distilleries, and the Loch Ness Monster. But it is in the Battle of Dungal Hill where Warhammer shifts from what is arguably an attitude of anti-establishment, pro-diversity politics into the realm of overt political satire. The vile Een McWrecker leads a gang of Orcs against Arka Zargul’s “long-suffering miner” Dwarfs. These names are puns on Ian MacGregor, responsible for overseeing the shutdown of Britain’s coal mines in the 1980s, and Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike and founder of the Socialist Labour Party.
Orcs, originally created by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, long represented in fantasy literature and gaming the archetypal brutish, evil foot soldier, a race of inhumane monsters and one-dimensional bad guys. In more recent years, properties like World of Warcraft have made Orcs, like the Klingons of Star Trek, more humanized, less monstrous. As the Warhammer Bestiary describes them, “[Orcs] are repulsive monsters who live to inflict pain, cruelty and death on other living creatures.” From Tolkien’s The Hobbit to D&D, Dwarfs are proud, stubborn good guys, described by the Warhammer Bestiary as “a very material people, they are excellent artisans and sturdy workers.” Their relationship with mines and mining goes back to folklore and fairy tales like the Seven Dwarfs of Snow White. It is that relationship between work and mining that makes Dwarfs the obvious choice to represent the working class miners. Arka Zargul’s Dwarfs carry a banner bearing the slogan “I ho I ho go slow,” in reference to industrial disruption, to help underline the narrative. The miners’ strike action erupted into violence under a militarized police force led by a right-wing government in the UK. In McDeath we see Warhammer give voice to the struggle of the miners, with a reimagined socialist movement fronted by good and stalwart Dwarfs, and the aggressive forces of the reactionary government painted as loathsome, evil Orcs. The political message could not be clearer.
In September 1986, ‘Eavy Metal, the regular miniatures painting column in Games Workshop’s White Dwarf magazine, published a profile on miniature painter and designer Colin Dixon. One of the works showcased, entitled Mag-gies Death Banner, is a custom-painted wargaming miniature of an Orc holding a standard, a kind of decorative flag used to identify a regiment. The banner held up by the Orc is emblazoned not with a baleful eye or demonic horned skull, or any such commonplace fantasy signifier of evil, but a portrait of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The alignment of the Orc with the image of the conservative Prime Minister leaves little doubt as to the underlying political message here; Margaret Thatcher is portrayed as an evil dictator, her visage used as a symbol of evil.
Thatcher makes a final appearance in The Enemy Within (1986), an adventure in the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game. The adventure makes a rather feeble pun when, in imperial year 1979, an Empress Magraritha comes to power, 1979 being the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the UK. No longer portrayed as an outright evil, idolized by inhuman Orcs, one of the most divisive British politicians of the 20th century is instead just a minor leader of men referenced in a footnote joke. However, the legacy of Thatcher can be seen in other ways: the title of the campaign itself, referring to underground cults of chaos demon-worshiping evildoers that threaten the Empire, is a phrase Thatcher used in one of her most infamous speeches: “We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” Thatcher was speaking, in 1984, about the exact same miners that the Tragedy of McDeath caricatured as wholly sympathetic heroes fighting an evil oppressor. Games Workshop took the phrase from a right-wing politician used to divide the country, and put it on the front cover of a product to describe the influence of demonic forces within its fantasy setting. The player characters are directly pitted against these “enemies,” whose motivations concern not saving their livelihoods or protecting their families, but, as Thatcher spun it, to the overthrowing of liberty.
Eventually, any anti-authoritarian aspect of Warhammer slid away, heroes overthrowing tyrannical despots like McDeath replaced by entrenched defenders of imperialism. This change in editorial direction occurred as the publisher, Games Workshop, lost exclusive rights to import the big-selling American roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Runequest to Europe. Focusing on its own products, the company perhaps sought to appeal to what it assumed would be a larger audience. Characters opposed to the far-right fantasy of neo-feudalism were rendered as monstrous and evil—agents of Chaos. The overt political references, brief as they were, ceased altogether. Gaming scenarios built around strong female characters disappeared, replaced with an almost exclusively male cast. The complex and often critical dialogue Warhammer had with colonialism switched to an entirely Eurocentric worldview within which other cultures simply didn’t exist and had no representation. Images of females as realistically attired warriors regressed to sexualized clichés. In short, the idea of the countercultural fantasy faded out of the Warhammer milieu, conforming to the established conventions of mainstream fantasy.
Gradually, over the decades, once staid and conservative fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons took the lead, successfully increasing the diversity of representation across race, gender, and sexuality. Yet Warhammer got left behind, a strangely cartoonish relic of the genre’s lowest common denominator. Seemingly, the publisher has begun to make moves to quietly remedy this across both its fantasy and science-fantasy incarnations—a person of color here, a non-sexualized female character there—despite or because of the infantile and reactionary “liberal politics is destroying my fandom” bickering on the internet. Yet diverse representation and liberal politics aren’t new to the game; they are what made Warhammer unique in the first place.
This article has been revised on January 24, 2019, to reflect the following correction: in the original version, The Merchant of Venice‘s protagonist Antonio was identified as pursuing Portia, when in fact it was his friend Bassanio.
Zhu Bajiee is an artist, designer and level 17 Dungeon Master from the barren wastelands of the New Town project, England. He can be found musing on the cultural detritus of the ’80s fantasy boom and other matters at Realm of Zhu.