Age of Sigmar and the same old High Fantasy

EDIT 14/06/17: I'm not going to delete this post, that would be cowardly, so I'm adding this to the beginning to say - in retrospect, this is more than just a little uncharitable. While I stand by the defence of WHF as-was, and I still can't find a way to conceptualise the AoS setting in a way that makes me enjoy it, dunking on fans of AoS was straight-up dickery on my part and I hold my hands up to that. It's also fair to say that GW are beginning to erode the entire basis for the critique; the Overlords release was excellent and while still a combination of tropes certainly a combination I'd never seen before, nor thought to see from GW. Going forward I'll be adopting a basic "if you've nothing nice to say..." approach to AoS.

This post will perhaps be a little petty, a little uncharitable, but if so it will be of its time given recent events.

I went browsing recently for new alternative sources of Dwarf models, and I kept bumping into old blogposts regarding the death of Warhammer Fantasy and the creation of its pseudosuccessor Age of Sigmar. Of course there were the expected rageposts by people like myself, who'd been involved in the setting in one form or another for decades and still had substantial passion for it, as well as a smattering of entries that amounted to "I don't care, but I might look into it", but what surprised me were the number of posts, some from people who's hobby work I have a lot of respect and admiration for, that were filled with optimism.

Some of those, like the one to whom the title of this blog is a wee homage, were from people who simply didn't particularly care for Warhammer Fantasy; some had a faint sense of desperation about them, of people not wanting to acknowledge what they knew deep down was coming; some were genuine declarations of optimistic acceptance, but almost all had a common theme running through them, which could be paraphrased as:

It's OK that Warhammer Fantasy died, really, since it was just tired old Tolkeinesque high fantasy with a few twists, and the brave new world of Age of Sigmar will be "created from imagination, not from tropes".

Well, here we are, AoS has had plenty of time to bed in now, for the fiction to begin to develop, and I can't help but feel a touch of the old Schadenfreude as The Hives play away in my head.

Because just as many of us said at the time, there's been no brave new world, no fantasy renaissance, no glorious elevation. GW just chose a different set of existing tropes and IPs to draw ideas from this time, and most are every bit as well trodden as the ones behind Warhammer Fantasy. Norse/Classical mythology meets World of Warcraft meets Dungeons and Dragons planes, with a sprinkle of medieval Space Marines - Age of Sigmar.

Even more hilariously, from the perspective of the slightly bitter Warhammer Fantasy fan, is that GW don't even seem to want to take full advantage of even that small chance to be "truly creative" granted them by breaking with their own fictional history. Other than combining generic High Fantasy tropes with their own existing IP(Paladins + Space Marines = Stormcast, Troll Slayers + a hint of D&D Azer = Fyreslayers etc), nothing they've produced either in models or fiction is so radical or so truly original that it wouldn't have slotted comfortably into Warhammer Fantasy as-was. Indeed, much as with their 40K output of late, many of GW's big reveals for AoS have been nothing more than wholesale plunder of their own back catalogue; Tzaangors, Fimir, Path to Glory, all the old hits being played.

The initial premise was always false, of course; Warhammer Fantasy wasn't merely a Tolkein ripoff any more than 40K was merely a Dune ripoff - both were true pastiches, drawing from history, mythology, folklore, existing fantasy tropes, and popular culture to create settings that were more than the sum of their parts. Tolkein's influence on WHF was clear, as was Moorcock's, Lovecraft's, Howard's; as was European history's; as was the Brothers Grimm and so on.

The setting undoubtedly produced some duds, and some stories certainly did tilt more to the Tolkein side of things, but I think to argue as some have that WHF is fundamentally Tolkeinesque and that all the myriad stories and factions that don't fit that thesis somehow don't count is fatuous nonsense. A fundamentally Tolkeinesque, generic High Fantasy setting could not produce stories like Ancient Blood, or Beasts in Velvet, or the Black Plague trilogy, or Skarsnik, or the Mathias Thulmann tales, or even dark fantasy adventures like Gotrek & Felix, Florence & Lorenzo et al, or borderline-comedy homages like Zavant. A fundamentally Tolkeinesque, generic High Fantasy setting could not have supported an RPG like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

But regardless, here we are. GW took away a setting with thirty years of development which was still unfinished and fair bursting with potential, and many rejoiced because with that history went all that tired, generic, Tolkeinesque High Fantasy they didn't find appealing and in some cases never bothered to look beyond, all the boring Elves and Dwarfs and Goblins and Ogres. And in its place the bright, shiny future of Age of Sigmar, with its Aelfs and Duardin and Grots and Ogors, with its Land Marines and its on-the-nose naming conventions and its mining of a slightly different set of fantasy tropes.

*hums* Hate to say I told you so...


  1. You have articulated what I feel to absolute perfection. My friends and I basically decided to retcon the End Times and tell our own stories. I love WFB, from the Wastes to the South Lands. I see no appeal at all in the bland, polished shallowness of AoS, and thankfully have a group who are equally unwilling to give it much attention. And you've basically plucked the reason out of my own head!

  2. I think the "Tolkienesque" argument is crap anyway. It owes a lot more to stuff like the Broken Sword (the Trolls vs. Elves conflict in that book reads like an Orc vs. High Elf campaign) and Three Hearts and Three Lions (set in a fantasy themed Holy Roman Empire). Obviously, Tolkien is a giant in the fantasy genre and everything will take a little from him, but Warhammer is about more than Tolkien, and really, has little in common with that sort of fantasy romance. I share your disappointment with AoS. I thought I might get some cool stuff for Dungeons and Dragons at least, but the aesthetic is so OTT and some of the new models so outright ugly that I have not picked up any (the high prices do not help). I have always loved Azers for example, but GW fireslayers are just way too ugly to even contemplate for purchase.