|Proto-skaven: the ratmen from Temple of Terror.|
The basic idea of humanoid rat monsters had been done before. Leiber had rat-people. D&D had wererats. Rat-men turn up in the Fighting Fantasy book Temple of Terror, which was published in 1985, narrowly predating the first appearance of the skaven in warhammer. A lot of people don't like rats, so they're easy to sell as a bad-guy race; and given their historical role in spreading diseases, its logical to link them with poisons and plagues. (Check out Dracula's army of plague rats in the 1979 Nosferatu, for example.) Most fantasy settings would have settled for 'subterranean race of rat-man plague cultists' and left it at that, but Warhammer made two crucial additions which transformed the skaven into something much more interesting.
The first addition was to make the skaven into lab rats, in both senses of the term: creatures who were both carried out scientific experiments and who were, themselves, scientifically experimented upon. (The key influence here was probably The Rats of NIMH, in which experiments performed upon lab rats transform them into intelligent creatures with a technologically-advanced society of their own: the book was from 1971, but the 1982 film adaptation was still recent when WFRP was being written.) But because Warhammer started out as a wargame, its designers had to answer the question of how these science-rats operated on the battlefield - and it's here that the second addition came into play, by making them not just lab rats but trench rats. (It's obvious in retrospect: the similarities between themselves and the rats with whom they shared their trenches was not lost upon WW1 infantrymen.) The combination of lab rat with trench rat helped to establish the skaven not just as scientists but as mad scientists, complete with crazy experimental weaponry and a love of human wave tactics and tunnel fighting. By the time Games Workshop started making miniatures of skaven equipped with gas masks, flamethrowers, poison gas, and Ratling guns, all the key elements of the subsequent skaven mythology were in place.
I don't know why they also became ninjas. Ninjas were everywhere in the 1980s.
During the mid-80s the skaven lore was still in the process of being developed, and they play a pretty low-profile role in WFRP 1st edition. (There are legends that the Enemy Within campaign was supposed to end with an epic battle against skaven on the moon, but in 1989 Games Workshop ordered the whole saga to be wrapped up as quickly as possible, and the adventure was never written.) The first Warhammer product to really give them a starring role was Advanced Heroquest (1989), and by then WFRP had already begun its slide into oblivion. In the 1990s, however, they became one of the most distinctive parts of the broader Warhammer mythology, especially after their 1993 army book depicted them as the masters of a secret world-spanning underground empire. Every 1990s fantasy setting had haughty elves and doughty dwarves and brutal orcs in it, but only Warhammer also featured a hidden subterranean civilisation of evil World War One science ratmen.
Given its position in the line, Children of the Horned Rat could easily have been a hack job: a simple matter of paraphrasing the lore from the army books, slapping on WFRP rules and statistics, and calling it a day. It's to the credit of its authors that they didn't do this, and instead reconceptualised the skaven as something even scarier than they already were. For me, the horror of the skaven it depicted rested on its treatment of four traits: their power, their cruelty, their secrecy, and their psychology.
Firstly: power. The book firmly established the skaven Under-Empire as the setting's largest and most advanced civilisation, to the extent that the histories of the Old World's human nations were reduced to mere side-effects of skaven history. The skaven have bigger cities than the humans. (In fact, the book states that under every human city is a skaven undercity, and the undercity is usually the larger of the two.) They have better guns. They have more advanced technology. They're building an intercontinental railway network, for fuck's sake. The skaven aren't just another enemy faction: they're closer to being what Iain M. Banks called an 'outside context problem'. In this retelling, Bretonnia and the Empire resemble two squabbling tribes on an isolated island somewhere, composing self-congratulatory legends about their mighty victories over the Great Boat People - not realising that what they thought were world-historical battles were just skirmishes with a couple of lost privateers, and that as soon as the nations across the sea stop fighting each other and get an organised program of colonial expansion underway they're going to get squashed like bugs.
|The future is a rat chewing on a human face, forever...|
Thirdly: secrecy. The depiction of skaven in Warhammer lore has always been massively contradictory on the topic of how well-known they are: for every book that describes them as a hidden threat in the shadows which most people don't even believe in, there's another one which writes about how their armies openly roam the world blasting people with warpfire throwers. This book mostly embraces the former option, even though it has to make some very odd assertions in order to square it with other parts of the lore. (If everyone in Tilea unanimously agrees that there really is an empire of evil rat-men hiding in their northern marshes, why does no-one in the Empire believe them? If the exploits of every other figure in Imperial history are taken literally, why are only those of Manfred Skaven-Slayer regarded as mere legends?) Despite these oddities, however, I feel this is a much more interesting approach to the skaven. I complained in this post that, by accepting the Storm of Chaos as canonical, WFRP 2nd edition was forced to move away from the idea of chaos as a hidden 'enemy within': but, as Stephen noted in the comments, that role was then taken over by skaven, instead. Skaven in 2nd edition are pretty much what chaos was in 1st, before the chaos warriors marched south: a threat which no-one really understands or takes sufficiently seriously, hidden in the shadows, preying upon the vulnerable. I feel that makes them much creepier, even if it's totally at odds with the way in which they're depicted in most actual 2nd edition adventures. The fiction snippet about the boy who is abducted by skaven, forced to eat diseased food, released back into his community sick and blind to spread the plague among them, and then stumbles around trying to find his mother only to be thrown in prison because no-one will believe his story, is chilling.
Fourthly, and for me most interestingly: psychology. As I've mentioned, the skaven were usually described as being generically evil for no very good reason; but this book tries to give an account of how their minds work, with pretty disturbing results. According to this book, despite being locked into instinctive pack dominance hierarchies, each individual skaven spends their whole life convinced that their own personal victory is always and obviously just at hand, and totally deserved, and totally inevitable, and if millions before them have tried and failed, then that just proves how much all those other guys sucked. They don't care about their own history. Their past is irrelevant. Their companions are expendable. Anything that goes wrong is obviously someone else's fault. Everybody other than themselves is just meat and slaves. The result is that the very qualities which make the skaven so awful are also the ones which make them so successful, as their empire is able to bounce back from the most appalling catastrophes without missing a beat. I find it horribly credible that a fast-breeding intelligent species with this kind of psychology might rapidly exterminate humanity while barely noticing that it was doing so - and would then probably not bother to record the fact that it had happened. At least for me, that seems much worse than just being consumed by the abstract entropic forces of chaos.
All this sets the skaven up as brilliant villains, although you'd probably want to modify or conceal the full scale of their advantages from your players to avoid it all getting too depressing. (The book gestures towards the idea of humans and skaven will ultimately be locked in a struggle for survival, but gives little indication of how this might be a struggle that humans could actually win.) The book also gives full information on skaven player characters - complete with careers like 'gutter runner' and 'warlock engineer' - and suggestions on running an all-skaven campaign, though I struggle to imagine such a game functioning as anything other than Paranoia-esque black comedy. There's also some information on the vast underworlds of the Warhammer setting, and some of the freakish creatures that inhabit them. Finally there's a short adventure: a pleasingly open-ended affair about a village caught between some escaped skaven slaves and their hunters, which leaves all the important decisions genuinely in the hands of the PCs. Even the length - nine pages - is, for once, not excessive given the content.
In conclusion: this is a good book, and one of the few WFRP 2nd edition book that I'd really recommend to fans of 1st edition. (The others are Barony of the Damned and, with some qualifications, Realm of the Ice Queen.) You could easily build a whole campaign around the skaven, starting with creepy encounters in the slums and sewers, moving onto investigations of the threat from below, then to increasingly desperate attempts to persuade the authorities of the rat-man menace, and finally to a pitched battle against the warriors of an entire skaven clan - with perhaps an ultimate Deep Carbon Observatory-style revelation that the terrifying army of monsters you've just vanquished is merely one of the innumerable constituent tribes of an underground empire so vast and evil as to almost defy comprehension. I'd also recommend it more widely to anyone interested in horror-fantasy gaming, as the skaven are so easy to drop into other campaign settings. And what fantasy world wouldn't be improved by the addition of a secret subterranean empire of evil magitech plague rat ninjas?