I grew up with Warhammer. While I was too poor to play, I was into the game, its world and its army books, its setting fluff and maps and stupid little models, from very early days. Before I had ever read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings, before I had ever rolled a die in D&D, I had bought my first White Dwarf. (It was this one, by the way.)
So I have an affection for Games Workshop’s products that goes back a long way, and their take on what a bog standard fantasy setting looked like helped to shape my expectations of same. Which means that I am likely to give them a pass in places where they may not deserve one. At the same time, something that initially pulled me into Warhammer was that, even as a kid, I saw the satire in it.
This was not a story about Good versus Evil, even if the Empire or the Imperium or whoever you were talking to at the moment might want you to think it was. Sure, Chaos might be evil, but the alternative was little (maybe no) better, and at least Chaos wasn’t a bunch of hypocrites.
It was deployed with varying degrees of nuance and skill, but always there was something tongue in cheek about the setting, whether that setting was the Old World of Warhammer Fantasy Battles or the grim darkness of the far future. You could spot it in sometimes unlikely places, like the company’s genuine affection for the mindlessly destructive orks or orcs or orruks or whatever.
The “good guys” were mostly fascists, and they spent human life like it was going out of style. They portrayed this as a grim necessity, but the game knew better, and let you in on the joke in various little ways. It was (perhaps unsurprisingly) satire in the Verhoeven or Judge Dredd vein – all too easy to misapply and turn into lionization.
As I’ve gotten back into the gaming sphere in recent years, I’ve seen (and occasionally fielded) a lot of questions about whether or not this was still true. This blog post, which is actually about a game called Kriegsmesser and only tangentially about Warhammer at all, makes a lot of those concerns explicit: over the years, much of the satire has seemingly bled away, replaced by an inadvertent celebration of fascism that is, unfortunately, probably too often embraced by fans as a good thing, actually.
To some extent, this is maybe inevitable. It’s hard to sustain satire when you’re building a massive brand across dozens of games, numerous video games, novels, toy lines, you name it. There’s a reason why punk rock was always afraid of selling out, and it isn’t just that it’s hard to be anti-corporate when you’re a corporation. Satire works well in small, bitter pills. Spread it too thin, and the sting dissipates, to become what it was satirizing in the first place. (See also: RoboCop becoming a toy line, a cartoon series, etc.)
So, is modern Warhammer pro-fascist? I wouldn’t go that far. The satire is still alive, if not necessarily alive and well.
The Imperium is still a bureaucratic nightmare that wipes out entire worlds due to clerical errors, but the barbs which were once the beating heart of Warhammer’s various settings now all too often wither on the vine. And while Age of Sigmar may lean hard into its Moorcockian underpinnings, the ambiguity of those stories is often obscured, when it’s not lacking altogether.
I don’t know the people behind Games Workshop in its modern incarnation, any more than I did the ones behind its earliest ones, but I don’t get the impression that any of this is intentional, or a sop to the worst impulses of their fanbase. Instead, I feel like it is the… if not inevitable, then at least most likely casualty of their own success.
To paraphrase the Green Goblin, you either die a satire, or you live long enough to see yourself become the very thing you were a satire of.