Monday, 10 September 2018

Bringing Down the Hammer part 6: Children of the Horned Rat

I warned you I'd be writing a lot about skaven.

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Children of the Horned Rat is the skaven book for WFRP 2nd edition, and for me it was the standout book of the line, probably partly because I'm an old skaven player myself. As I mentioned in my first post on WFRP, the skaven are one of the very few parts of the Warhammer World which weren't derived fairly directly from somewhere else. The chaos gods came from Michael Moorcock; the orcs and elves and dwarves all came from Tolkien via D&D; the dark elves started out as a combination of Gygax's drow and Moorcock's Melniboneans, and so on. In every case Warhammer ultimately did something different with them, to the point where they sometimes barely resembled their originals: there's quite a gap between Tolkien orcs and Warhammer orcs, for example. But the only things they made up pretty much out of whole cloth were the chaos dwarves and the skaven: and much as I love the idea of evil Assyrian dwarves with blunderbusses (and I love it a lot), the skaven have gone on to be much more important to the Warhammer world as a whole.

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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.

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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.

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The future is a rat chewing on a human face, forever...
Secondly: cruelty. The skaven had usually been described as a compound of negative traits - cruel, fanatical, cowardly, power-hungry, bloodthirsty, and so on. Everything they do is awful: they engineer plagues, they practise slavery, they eat people alive. But I don't think their evil and cruelty had ever been described so vividly as in this book, which makes effective use of both out-of-character information, short fiction snippets, and in-character quotations to communicate just how horrible the skaven really are. Rather than presenting them as figures of slightly cartoonish evil, the book depicts them as presiding over a secret world-wide empire of abduction, enslavement, and involuntary medical experimentation, and doesn't shy away from describing what that might look like. It's pretty nasty stuff.

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.

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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?

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18 comments:

  1. Good post ! No Ninjas ? According to Warhammer Fantasy 1st edition (in my French version), there were the Eshin clan of Skavzn Assassins.

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    1. Yes, they *are* ninjas. I'm just not sure *why* they're ninjas. I understand the plague rat, lab rat, and trench rat associations, but where did ninja rats come from? Just the associations with stealth and poison?

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    2. It was published in 1986. Ninjas were like kudzu on popular culture in the mid-1980s.

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    3. Hmm, a ninja rat? Would the addition of some humanoid terrapins provide a clue?

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    4. Hm. The cartoon didn't start until 1987, but the comic began in 1984, and it's obvious that some of the original Games Workshop team were comics fans. I guess they could have been reading the original TMNT comics back when they first came up with Clan Eshin in 1985/6...

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  2. Great post. One which touches on one of the main problems with the Warhammer setting (much as I love it): the idea of chaos and skaven lurking in the background as The Enemies Within is way more compelling and great for WFRP, but can't really sit alongside the idea of big armies of chaos and skaven constantly fighting pitched battles against everybody else that is great for WFB. You can't really have one and the other and have the setting be consistent.

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    1. I think that's true, and it's a tension that the two gamelines never really resolved. It feels more extreme in 2nd edition because WFB changed so much between 1985 and 2005. WFB circa 1985 was still so vaguely defined that the differences between the two lines were much more easily handwaved away...

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    2. One of the things I really like about Warhammer as a big shared setting is that it's full of dials that you can adjust depending on your needs and it all still more or less hangs together.

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    3. I think that's very true. You've got the low fantasy vs. high fantasy dial, the historical realism vs. deliberate anachronism dial, the fantasy vs. horror dial, the heroism vs. nihilism dial, the seriousness vs. comedy dial, and the 'chaos is subtle' vs. the 'CHAOS IS EATING YOUR FACE!' dial, and different combinations of them can produce very different versions of the Warhammer setting, while still all being recognisable as 'Warhammer fantasy'.

      It's not unlike superhero universes in that respect. High elves (who default to serious heroic medieval high fantasy) and skaven (who default to semi-comic nihilistic anachronistic low-fantasy horror) may live in the same world, but they don't really live in the same *genre*, any more than Batman and Superman do.

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    4. Each of the individual armies/factions has a number of dials as well, although I think the Warhammer Fantasy ones tend to be more cohesive in their vision than the 40k ones (you can make a decent text-supported argument for both "the Emperor is literally a benevolent god" and "the Emperor has been dead this whole time and nobody in charge can afford to admit it"). But the fantasy Empire can shade more towards a heroic bastion of enlightenment or towards dung-age oppression, the orcs can be an agglomeration of all our fears of the hostile Other or football hooligans that we can despatch in a series of Three Stooges capers, and so on. I've read most of Dan Abnett's Warhammer novels and it's interesting to see how even the same author can, by adjusting the various setting elements a bit, create stories with very different tones that all still feel like the belong in the same setting.

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  3. As you seem to be a big fan of the oft appearing and best known secret enemy in WFRP, you really should pick up Terror in Talabheim. It is a strong adventure (although it could do with some extra detail in the "occupation stage"). In that adventure, people are prepared to admit there are rat-faced mutants, but not an organised race of creatures.

    I thought one of the skaven traits was grand plans that keep going wrong.

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    1. I've already got it - it's the next book on my chronological list, so it'll be appearing in the next post. (It would have been in this one, but the skaven ate everything, as usual.)

      One of the reasons I liked 'Children of the Horned Rat' was its reinterpretation of skaven incompetence. In the wargame it tended to be used to add lightening humour to what was otherwise a pretty dark faction: it was hard to be too scared of the skaven when they were constantly screeching 'MY PLANS LIE IN RUINS!' (It also accurately reflected the experience of playing them in the wargame, where you'd invariably end up accidentally gassing your own troops at the worst possible time.) In 'Children', though, it's not incompetence: it's a survival strategy. The skaven don't *care* how many times they lose, because there are always more clanrats to replace the ones that just got slaughtered. They can afford to keep going for the high-risk, high-reward longshot. They can absorb innumerable failures, and they only have to win once.

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    2. I think it's similar to Warhammer orks, in that they can be interpreted as an unstoppable civilization-ending threat or as slapstick comedy villains depending on your preference, the needs of the game, and which aspects of the lore you want to emphasize (although I think at the default setting orks shade more towards comedy than Skaven)

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    3. I suspect a lot of that is due to their respective visuals. (The warhammer games are very visually-driven franchises.) The physical grotesquerie of the orcs is depicted as comic: all those tiny eyes, pinched craniums, bulging muscles, and idiot grins. (The older art and models, which depicted them as much smaller and skinnier, actually made them look more threatening despite being less physically imposing: they looked cruel rather than imbecilic.) The skaven, by contrast, get all this really abject imagery of plague and deformity, which is much harder to play for laughs.

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  4. My view of the sneaky Skaven went down a different path when the first page I flipped to in their army book the first time I saw it was the one with warp jezails. That made me see the sneaky rats as assassins rather than ninja, possibly with some influence from Araby.

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    1. Skaven hashashin would be great, but I'm pretty sure that Clan Eshin is canonically from Cathay, and they use a lot of stereotypical 'ninja weapons' like throwing stars. Like Cambias says above, it was the mid-80s. Everyone was a ninja in the mid-80s.

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  5. A month late, but I quite like this examination of skaven and works and doesn't work. As kind of a newcomer to Warhammer it's sometimes hard to know how to work with a certain faction, what makes them good antagonists.

    I do have to wonder how effective skaven are though. I mean, they have machine guns and chemical weapons, but somehow they're still getting beaten up by a ratcatcher and a small but vicious dog. There's only so much infighting and cowardice before this starts to feel weird.

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    1. It depends if you want horror-skaven or comedy-skaven, I guess.

      The horror-skaven answer would be that they just don't give a fuck about us. The surface world is a near-irrelevancy to them. 99% of their energy is devoted to fighting each other, and they probably barely notice the occasional losses of individuals or packs who stray to close to the surface. A full-scale invasion of the surface world by the united forces of the Under-Empire would be completely apocalyptic.

      The comedy-skaven answer would be that their cowardice and megalomania and compulsive backstabbing are so crippling that, despite their staggering numerical and technological advantages, they still manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory nine times out of ten.

      The expected default setting is probably a mixture of the two.

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