Law and Chaos: From Elric to Warhammer and Back Again

WFRP, 1st Edition, ca. 1986

I will not start at the beginning. I can’t possibly, or I’d never start writing these blogs. And I promised my pal, SolomonLox, that we’d channel some pent-up musings, reflections, or, in his case, recipes, that have been on our mind since the first incendiary sparks of a fiery 2020 rose up in mid-March, into new posts.

If I did try to start at the beginning, tracing my rejuvenated obsession with gaming and tabletop RPG’s in particular, I might never get around to reflecting on my current state of mind, my pandemic reading list, or recent Roll20 exploits. Plus, that would require too much organization on my part (so as to not upset the chronology). Another pal, HolyBeeOfEphesus, employs a workhorse mentality to his note-taking, sequencing, and thoughtful composition of blogs, evidenced most notably in his Used To Be My Playground series. I’ve seen the preparatory legal pads, ladies and gentlemen, and that guy works. Me, I’m just going to start rambling.

Let me instead start with a recent fantasy read and its connection to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. WFRP (“whuff-rupp”) for short. To borrow terminology from my favorite podcast, The Grognard Files, WFRP wasn’t my first RPG, nor was it my last, but it certainly is my everything. Future installments of this blog series will delve deeper into my adolescent explorations of TSR’s classic games and then draw a line from the Talisman boardgame through Games Workshop and into that first edition WFRP tome that I so cherished as a teenager. It may even feature game recaps from my currently underway 4th edition Enemy Within campaign.*

*It will most certainly feature those game recaps because I’m already in the habit of writing them for my players and, something else I’ve learned from The Holy Bee is that no amount of writing should go to waste. Why publish those solely for the benefit of my four friends when I could perhaps double that number by posting publicly?

Even as a teenager I was vaguely aware that WFRP’s cosmology, that of a world (“The Old World,” as it were) constantly at war with demonic incursions from a Realm of Chaos, borrowed heavily from existing fantasy tales and tropes. I was also generally aware of Michael Moorcock’s work and the Elric stories, despite never having read them. I bought and enjoyed First Comics’ Hawkmoon comics in the 80’s, but understood little of Moorcock’s multiverse. What I did know, from my earliest forays into gaming, was that Elric wielded a sword named Stormbringer capable of draining a victim’s soul, empowering this albino warrior with the stolen lifeforce. And I only knew this for certain because my very first Dungeons & Dragons experience, somewhen in the mid-80’s, led to my discovery of a life-draining runesword that my Dungeon Master told me went by the name Stormbringer. He was a marvelously benevolent DM, and we knew nothing of game balance or challenge. We were twelve.

The Chaos Gods Khorne, Nurgle, and Malal from WFRP first edition

Decades later, inspired in equal parts by the aforementioned Grognard Files; the recent issue of TwoMorrows’ Back Issue which featured comic book depictions of Conan and his ilk; and my own desire, in this quarantine era, to check off a very long list of genre classics; I made up my mind to give the Elric saga a spin. And, in keeping with what is an apparent current habit of mine, I decided against starting at the beginning.

Gollancz, which publishes the Michael Moorcock Collection, posted an article in 2013 with a suggested reading order for the Elric stories. This article, logically, suggests starting at the beginning, which for the collection is Volume 1: Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories. The article author goes on to say, however, that “There’s an argument for starting with Elric: Stormbringer! which contains perhaps the most famous of the Elric novels, but…”

Volume 6 in Gollancz’s Elric collection

That was good enough for me. I purchased Volume 6: Elric: Stormbringer! and finished the entire book in a weekend. The novel, supplementary articles, commentary, art portfolio, and every word of the wonderful “New Reader’s Guide” (which, curiously, is not collected in Volume 1 of this series).

I wanted, at long last, to discover what the fuss was all about. I expected to be entertained or, at the very least, mine some setting details for my next WFRP scenario. I had no idea how much of Moorcock’s universe had already been used to inspire not just the Warhammer setting, but decades of sword & sorcery fare. I also did not expect to be completely engrossed in this, the final tale of the doomed anti-hero.

This novel tells the story of Elric’s role in the ultimate struggle between the forces of Law and the forces of Chaos. And, spoilers be damned (it’s been around for sixty years), thanks to the protagonist, himself a creature partially devoted to and controlled by Chaos, the White Lords and Law prevail.

When WFRP debuted, the Old World was envisioned as being constantly torn between gods of Law and gods of Chaos. For reasons for which I am not entirely clear, in the subsequent decades the gods of Law were phased out of Warhammer cosmology and the Chaos gods took on more narrative importance. The prolific Graeme Davis, who has been involved with WFRP since the beginning and who in fact created Solkan, the Law god worshiped by Witch Hunters and vengeance-takers, wrote this blog post about the curious dismissal of the Law deities.

It could just be that the Forces of Chaos are far more interesting, and their expansion in Warhammer lore, which now includes four principal gods, better serves to highlight the theme of humanity’s tireless struggle against entropy and inevitable destruction.

In Stormbringer!, the climactic battle results in a complete cleansing and re-working of the world as it once was, setting the stage for something else, something new…

Gotrek, reborn in the Age of Sigmar setting

Well, damn it if Warhammer isn’t still riffing off that Moorcock concept. When Games Workshop discontinued Warhammer Fantasy Battle, the miniatures wargame that preceded WFRP, in 2015, they declared that The End Times had finally come and Chaos was victorious. And, just as in the Moorcock Multiverse, something new was created to take its place. Enter Age of Sigmar, an entirely new setting loosely recreated from the ashes of the Old World. As with Moorcock, Warhammer architects carried over their own “Eternal Champions,” most notably Gotrek Gurnisson, the dwarven troll slayer popularized in Warhammer Fantasy novels from the early 2000’s.

This week I purchased two more volumes in Gollancz’s Elric collection but, still stubbornly avoiding volume 1, I’m going to bounce over to the first published Elric short story, “The Dreaming City,” which is contained in volume 3, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I’ll get with the program and follow the proper chronology at some point, which begins with Moorcock’s 1972 prequel novel Elric of Melniboné. But right now I’m very interested in seeing the author at his earliest stages of working through these concepts.

The author in 2014

In the article “Elric,” first published in Niekas in 1964 and reprinted as supplementary material in the Stormbringer! volume, Moorcock reflects: “I think of myself as a bad writer with good ideas, but I’d rather be that than a big writer with bad ideas…”

I get it now. While his own influences are well documented, and, indeed, he relates many inspirations for his characters and themes, from the albino hero-villain in Britain’s Union Jack pulps to the at-odds-with-the-world adventure of Fritz Leiber, the stories Moorcock has in turn inspired are too numerous to count. Good ideas, indeed.

As for the other part of his statement, I can now add my own (albeit newly forming) opinion to the likes of Alan Moore, Michael Chabon, and Neil Gaiman, whose prefaces and introductions in these Gollancz editions are first-order hero worship: while it’s possible to truly be a bad writer with good ideas, that doesn’t apply to Michael Moorcock. I wouldn’t be heading down the rabbit hole solely in search of more creative sparks of imagination. He’s a damn fine writer.

I may be arriving decades late to the party, but I’m fast becoming a convert. My PC’s need to be careful… runeswords, despite my ca. 1985 half-elf ranger’s enthusiasm for his own Stormbringer, are truly consuming creatures after all.