Mark of War – Creating a Fantasy World

mow logoHopefully, if you’ve been following me on any form of social media you will have noticed that I’ve been blathering about a new project called Mark of War. At the basic level, it’s a tabletop miniatures game that you play on your PC or Mac or (if the funding goes well) your iThingy.

Look at this picture, it really saves me several thousand words.

Gameplay_4

If you aren’t aware of it, please go and look at the website now, or look at Phil’s first thoughts here,  and mark the 25th of August on your calendar as the day the Kickstarter launches.

>Patient whistling, those still around cast the occasional glance at each other, silence gets a bit more awkward, a couple of people leave…<

Great, you’re back!

On the website is a whole section dedicated to the armies you’ll be able to field. The major ones have been announced by now, and I’m taking this opportunity to talk a little bit more about the world in general, to piece it all together for you and give an insight of how we’ve been going about this.

Armies_Kingdom-1009x1024A few months back the lovely people at Warpforged Games asked me if I would do some work with them on the background and world of Mark of War. They had come up with a basic premise, they knew which races they wanted to develop armies for and some of the image concepts were underway. From my point of view, pretty much ideal – not a total blank page but plenty of room to get adventurous! The underlying history of Mark of War is essentially the story of Lucifer’s fall smushed together with Revelations. Angels and demons and the apocalypse, oh my.

Anyway, regular readers of my work will know that I’m not renowned for moral absolutism, and my experience with Warhammer has taught me that everyone has a perspective, even if you’re a blood-crazed worshipper of dark and forbidden gods. Good and evil, man, are just, like, your viewpoint, m’kay? The Lucifer character morphed from being the Corruptor to being dubbed the Liberator by his followers. Get where this is going?

So, the Creator, um, creates everything with the help of divine servants. There’s a rebellion over how humans should learn about the greater secrets of the universe and the Liberator and friends are turned into demons, while the obedient divine servants become angels. The Liberator and other demons hate the Creator for this, and turn a whole load of humans into orcs, creating a vast horde with which they will wipe out the Creator’s works.

mow orc modelAt the same time, the Liberator has been whispering all kinds of juicy secrets to the humans, enticing them away from the rigid laws of the Creator, leading to the rise of the Ascended.

MoW_Ascended-1024x1024

Faced with this assault, the Creator realises that the humans cannot survive on their own. The Creator sends the angels down from the heavens to lay their touch upon a bunch of humans, thus bringing into the world the elves, who can aid the loyal humans against the oncoming legions of the Liberator.

elf model

There is a big war and pretty much the Creator’s armies lose. City after city falls to the orcs and Ascended until only one remains – Westfort.

Banner_Kingdom

At the very brink of victory, the individualism and selfishness brought about by the Liberator’s interference comes full circle and most of the Ascended leave the battle to follow their own desires, abandoning the orcs in the biggest assault in creation. Even so, the orcs are on the verge of winning, and in a desperate last act the Creator breaks the world, opening up the Rift. This consumes the demons, the Liberator, the Creator, kills most of the orcs and unleashes all sorts of monsters, as well as irrevocably flooding the world with Essence (magic but with a cooler, more relevant name). Westfort just about survives to become the capital of the Kingdom, and after a hundred years have passed, the stage is set for these factions to battle for domination once more.

Banner_OrcsThe idea of Essence, the energy used by the creator at the birth of the world, has gained some traction, and I think will make for an interesting magic system when we’ve had a bit more time to work on it. Similarly, the Rift is a literal bottomless pit of fun monsters and horrible things yet to be revealed.

My point is, there is a nice metaphysical, almost theological underpinning to the world right from the outset. It feels… big. One might even hazard epic. A battleground not just between armies but between ideas. We’re working hard to make sure that each of the factions has some real motivation and depth, which players will be able to latch onto when they are fighting their battles, and delve into and argue about discuss when they’re not.

Gameplay_1

So, please come along to the forums and talk about what you would like to see, in the game and in the background. We’ve only just begun creating this world and I’m really excited by the possibilities. If you are too, please back the Kickstarter so that Mark of War can become a reality,

Thanks, see you on the battlefield!

Some Words that I Wrote: Path of the Archon and Writing a Trilogy – by Andy Chambers

Black Library just published the third and final book of my Dark Eldar ‘path’ trilogy, Path of the Archon. I finished Path of the Archon a little over a year ago and, if I’m perfectly honest, I have been so busy with other projects that I’ve not given it much thought since. The release made me think that this is a very silly thing to do so I thought I’d like to share a few thoughts about it. path-3-shot You see although I’ve written books, games and articles a-plenty over the years (even a novel but we’ll come back to that in a bit),  Path of the Archon represents the culmination of a really major solo and sustained writing effort for me. It’s like I’ve been doing sprints and relay races all my life before deciding that one of those marathon thingies would cool to try out – after all that’s just a load of sprinting put together, right? Right? Wrong. It’s been tremendous fun and an absolute honour to contribute something to the 40K universe again, but I have to confess now that I look back at it the thought of writing all those words brings me out in a bit of a cold sweat.

Why? It’s close on 400,000 words in total for the Dark Eldar trilogy once you include the short stories and a spin-off novella I wrote around it. It’s certainly given me a great deal of respect for real authorship – those guys and girls with ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty novels to their names, I salute you. Those who hold down full-time careers, raise families and write novels in their non-existent free time certainly deserve our unadulterated worship and adoration for their dedication to the written word. The key here is that you’re well and truly on your own writing a novel.

Sure an editor might make helpful suggestions, if you’re very lucky you might have friends and colleagues to point you in the right direction, but once you start you’re the only one that’ll be making all the running (dammit I used the running analogy again, sorry, I’ll stop now). Designing games is very different, you reach a consensus, slap something together that vaguely works and then change it (often a lot) based on playing it and feedback, you expand, contract and detail portions as it shapes up. You divvy up the work to make sure everyone gets to do things they’ll love while making sure that everything gets done.

Not so much with the old novel-writing as it turns out, you’ve just got a big pile of words to write, (hopefully) you’ve a story to tell and you’re off to the races (dammit!). Anyway, waah-waah, big, scary, daunting etc. I figure the best and most useful thing to bring from the experience is to talk  about it and give other aspiring writers out there some ideas on how I went about it. I had some very good advice from masters of the craft like Graham McNeill, William King, Nick Kyme, Andy Hoare, Phil Kelly and Gav Thorpe (who I also had the pleasure of collaborating with on some short stories). I also read lots of the sort of writerly articles and blogs that writers link to each other (kinda like this one I guess), so you can probably see all these notions explained better in other places. The methods I ended up using are probably not the best or smartest approach in the world, but these are the ones that worked for me.

  1. Have a plan (and don’t stick to it)

Every single time I’ve written a novel I’ve regretted not planning it out more thoroughly from the outset. To put that in  perspective a little; the usual process involved first making a short, literally two or three sentence, pitch about what the novel would be about. No secrets here, no hidden reveals that come only if you read the story – the editor cares nothing for your veiled mysteries at this stage. ‘Two explorers find a mysterious ruin on planet X with a powerful artefact hidden inside. One of them turns out to be a shape-shifting alien who’s the original owner of the artefact and has manipulated the other man to help him get it back. – A clichéd sort of pitch but you get the idea. Once the pitch is approved I move on to writing a synopsis comprising an expanded summary of the story (a short paragraph or two now, based off the pitch, no more), a list of characters (just name, couple of lines of pertinent background information/personal traits/ motivations, maybe a physical characteristic or two: ‘thin-faced’  ‘wears black’ that kind of level of detail).

The meat of the synopsis is a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of what happens to who, where and when in as much or as little detail as you want – in my case at least a paragraph each. The synopsis goes back to the editor for approval and this is also a good stage to get others to take a look and tell you what they think as well. The synopsis might go back and forth several times, undergo changes, reflows, introduction of new ideas and deletion of old one. Do not despair, or be disheartened as this is all for the good. Even if your story idea is utterly brilliant and original (and it probably isn’t) it will only benefit from another pair of eyes giving it scrutiny. Observation will not rob your fledgling creation of its uniqueness and beauty, it will only prevent it turning into a self-absorbed monstrosity living in the bowels of the underearth. The plan is-all important because once you start writing you will very likely go off ‘into the weeds’ and find yourself writing about things you didn’t plan for. That’s ok and desirable and very writerly in many cases, but the synopsis is your road map/blueprint/compass for finding your way back on track.

  1. Daily word counts

So the plan’s in place and you make a good start knocking down thousands of words towards your goal (roughly 100,000 words for a novel, 50K for a novella and around 8K for a short story as a guide). A few days or a week in things start to slump a bit, you’ve got a dull or unpleasant part of the story to write, or you find yourself suddenly painted into a corner, or a friend came in from out-of-town, there was an earthquake or whatever. You stop writing for a bit and then writing becomes a chore as you struggle to start back up again and find your focus and enthusiasm for it. Repeat ad nauseam. The first novel I wrote, a novel based in the Necromunda setting called Survival Instinct often became mired this way and took far longer to complete than it should.

While I actually kind of like the story and characters some parts of it are a chore to read basically because they were a chore to write. For me the only answer to this has been to have a daily/weekly and monthly word target to work towards – ‘it’s done when it’s done’ doesn’t work for me, I need a sense of progression. So targets of 1500 words/day, 7500 words/week, 30,000 words/month is what I work to. For a proper writer these are laughably easy goals. You can write 10,000 words in a day if you’re minded to, but the point here is consistency and a big slice of tortoise and the hare mentality. I often struggle even to write 1500 words a day (pathetic, I know) but having daily/weekly/monthly counts stops me from getting to the end of three months and finding I’ve got less than a third of the novel actually written. It also provides a useful stick to beat myself with to stop navel-gazing and rewriting the same paragraph sixty billion times.

  1. Do other stuff/Read to write

I wrote the Dark Eldar trilogy over the course of three years so perforce there was a break in between writing each novel. Looking back at it I can only feel that this was a good thing for the maturation of both the story and my ability to write it. The time helped mature the plotline and stories in my head while topping up the idea tanks. When it comes to ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ the answer is that I steal them. I steal them from history books, I steal them from fiction and movies or from things that happen in everyday life. Note that I’m talking about stealing here, not copying. I always remember Bill King telling me a supposed quote from Picasso: ‘Students copy, artists steal.’ That always sounded very apt to me, because copying an inspiration is simply reproducing it faithfully, but stealing it is about making it yours. As well as conscious theft I’ve found that input influences output, so if I read books about a subject that subject will infuse what I’m writing about almost in a sort of Brownian motion of ideas (WTFf is that? Go here.). In other words to make the Dark Eldar feel like an ancient, entitled, treacherous aristocracy I read about thing like ancient Greece and Rome, Alexander the Great, the Assyrian Empire. I especially recommend Plutarch’s ‘Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans’ if you’re looking for that kind of thing, as well as Arrian’s ‘Conquests of Alexander’. These are good because the ancient writers were obsessed with the past like we, in the modern age, are obsessed by the future. Plutarch and Arrian believed that everything that man needed to know was revealed by the actions of their glorious antecedents – a very fitting mentality for any writer engaging with the 40K universe.

  1. Get someone to read it all

One of the nice things about writing a Black Library novel is that you get to put a dedication in the front of it. All of my dedications include my wife, Jessica, because she’s had the infinite tolerance to read my half-finished works and give me feedback on them, as well as proofreading the final text. I can’t begin to say how important that was for me, every writer should be their own worst critic and having another pair of eyes to reassure you that things don’t completely suck is really important. That doesn’t guarantee my novels don’t suck by the way, you might hate them, but my wife loves me and she’s a good enough liar that she convinced me to keep going and actually finish them. After Jessica there was also Nick Kyme at Black Library, the hard-pressed editor of a dozen other tales, who gave me more feedback and called me out when things got too hand-wavey or simply didn’t make sense. Once again, the writing part is very solitary, but a story matures under scrutiny. There’s a natural shyness about showing work to people you know, especially when you may feel it’s unfinished. Crush that queasy sensation unmercifully. The danger is not that the people you know will be too cruel, it’s that they’ll be too kind.

Aftermath

Looking back at writing my first trilogy the thing that surprises me most (aside from actually having done it) is that it’s also a snapshot of a period of my life. There’s a scene featuring Asdrubael Vect haranguing his Archons set against a backdrop of a mighty storm shaking the city of Commorragh to its foundations. I wrote that in a hotel room in Indiana on the night before Phil Kelly’s wedding as a deadly storm passed overhead and the place shook to its foundations. Path of the Incubus includes a lot of wandering the webway, lost and homeless, for two of the protagonists. That coincides with the point when me and Jessica moved back from the US and were trying to find our feet back in the UK. The storm scene was conscious inspiration, the wandering about was me unconsciously acting things out in words. Brownian motion again, I guess.

Finally (and forgive me this has got way too long, booyah if you made it this far) a hoary old adage that I keep coming back to is worthy of a mention here. The story goes like this; A man a man enters a medieval town and sees some people hard at work. He asks the first person what they are doing. ‘I’m hauling rocks’ comes the reply. He asks the second the same question. ‘I’m making a wall,’ comes the reply. He asks the third person, who’s gazing up into the empty air and apparently doing nothing what they are doing. ‘I’m building a cathedral,’ comes the reply. As well as old style dead tree varieties (all with gorgeous covers by Neil Roberts) Black Library now publishes all my Dark Eldar trilogy stories together in a single eBundle.

Opening lines… By Nick Kyme

Imagine a magnesium bright desert. There is nothing as far as your eye can see, and the horizon and the landscape are so indistinct from one another that they merge into a single formless, toneless mass.

Welcome to the first page of your novel. Surprise, surprise – it’s blank. Better take on lots of water and figure out your route, it’s going to be a long road.

It gets better, though. Having a road map helps. You build it. You build the landscape too (though that can be capricious and surprising – it should be). It’s your world, remember?

Make no bones about it (there are many in the blank page desert, slowly bleaching in the sun), writing a novel is tough. It takes time, and isn’t for the faint hearted. If you are faint of heart, try some shorter at first. If that gives you concern too then I’d suggest getting the heck out of the desert at the first opportunity before you expire. This trek is not for you, sir/madam.

Perhaps toughest is coming up with that opening line. Thing is, once you’ve got your landscape up and running (your characters and the story they drive and inhabit), it becomes a little more self-perpetuating. Before that happens, there’s just the desert and all the compass directions laid before you.

See, the thing about opening lines is, there’s never just one. You might think there is, but that’s not true. There are lots, and therein lies the rub. So many places where you could begin, so many choices, directionless and amorphous.

It can be paralysing.

Terrifying.

Some advice?

Write more than one. Don’t be afraid to throw out what you’ve spent the entire morning agonising over. No words are that important that you can’t jettison them in favour of better or more appropriate ones.

Recycle and redraft. In the blank desert landscape, this isn’t only environmentally friendly, it’s economically sound too. I’ve dumped loads of failed opening lines, only to find them in my mental scrap and ready to be deployed elsewhere. Throw nothing out. Not completely anyway. With a little care and attention, it can be put to use again.

But I’m digressing.

I equate writing a novel to running a long race. Think of it as a journey. I remember an interesting quote about this very subject (apologies if I don’t remember this accurately): Writing a novel is like driving down a dark road with your lights on. You know where you’ve been, and you can see just what is in front of you, but no further ahead than that. The only way you know what is around the next bend is to reach it and have a look.

Think about your route. Have a route. We are back in the blank page desert again, but if you have a route you are much more likely not to get lost, especially when you start to establish some of the landmarks along the way.

Going back to the idea of a long race, the opening line is you on the starting line. It’s your preparation and thought process up to this point. You just need to put one foot in front of the other.

Endurance is the key. You have to have e physical and mental chops to stay the course. Break up the miles. It’s hot in the desert, but you’ll be all right if you just take it steady and try not to think about the journey in its entirety. That is the way to madness. You’ll end up (or rather the idea of your novel will) as one of those bleached skulls on the side of the road, the ruins of your story putrefying in the heat.

When I’m writing a novel, I prepare. Mind and body. I research and plan. I think. Then when I’m ready, I act. I consider the variant possibilities of my opening line, that first scene and simply pick one.

I take it step by step, mile and mile. It’s tough at first, and takes some adjustment. All long races are, I think. I find a novel doesn’t start to attain its own gravity (and thus pulling me along into its orbit) until I reach about 20 to 30k words. I know I’m in a long race then, not a sprint. I reconcile the fact it’s going to take some time. I double check my route map. Do it more than once, to remind yourself where you are going. I do the miles, I work at that everyday even if I’m only chipping away at them.

Write. Read. Repeat.

There is no cheat or trick. That’s it.

Opening lines, they are scary but think of all the possibilities and what might come of it all when the finish line is in sight and you get to cross it…

Pushing the Edges by Gav Thorpe

I was going to write a fairly snarky post about some of the childish, narrow-minded, reactions in the community to the announcement of the Storm of Vengeance mobile videogame. On reflection I decided that rather than challenging one of the less desirable traits of the wargames community (or parts of it) I thought I’d go for a celebration of something altogether more positive.

With that said, I have to start with something of a lament, but I’ll keep it brief. From a design point of view, there are a lot of companies treading the same road and bringing out the same stuff that has dominated the sci-fi and fantasy miniatures market for the last couple of decades. A lot of it is either influenced by Games Workshop or more blatantly trying to cash-in on their worlds. As a business model I have my doubts about this, but it’s from the viewpoint of a creative that I find this most disappointing.  There are some very talented sculptors and artists who are spending their time producing remakes of Citadel designs and imagery, and I would much rather see the boundaries of sci-fi and fantasy gaming being stretched rather than the same waters getting increasingly muddied. I think that it’s smart for a company to stand out and do something different rather stumble along the same well-trodden route taken by countless others before.

This is not to say that the classic fantasy archetypes of elves, dwarfs, orcs and the rest aren’t fertile ground, it’s just that so few companies have done anything new with them lately. The same goes for the plethora of  Colonial Marines / Space Marines / Future Soldier clones, zombie and post-apocalypse gangs and other imagery that has been smeared so thin that the archetypes risk become clichés. Weird West, Steampunk and Dieselpunk have all come along and have now become part of the furniture, so where to next? It also goes without saying that many Games Workshop ranges are themselves iterations of very common archetypes and the whole ‘well they stole it first’ debates litter forums the breadth of the internet. This is isn’t about that. It’s about bringing new ideas to gaming miniatures in the same way that the game books and systems themselves have come on leaps and bounds in the last decade.

[As an aside, I have the same lament for many of the faux-medieval worlds that are the staple of a lot of modern fantasy, but that’s a different blog post].

The good news is that there are folks out there who are, as the title suggests, pushing the edges of fantasy and sci-fi gaming. Many of you might have come across some or all of these previously, especially if you hang out at places like The Shell Case, The Miniatures Page or Frothers Unite and other cross-genre forums and websites. Apologies if it seems like I’m telling you how to suck eggs, I hope there’s something you haven’t seen before.

Lots of manufacturers have the occasional oddball miniature or special piece, but I’ve chosen to have a look at companies that have whole ranges and games that are a definite step away from the fantasy and sci-fi I have seen so many times. It’s as much about the overall aesthetic hanging together as it is the individual models. Often I find that while faction ranges might have a coherent tone, the overall universe feels too hotch-potch. Of course, 40K makes a virtue of this, but that’s helped by the sheer size of the ranges these days; if there were only a handful of Eldar, Imperial Guard, Tyranids and Necrons it wouldn’t work as well for me.

If you have your own ‘out there’ ranges, feel free to suggest them in the comments.

[Another aside. I don’t claim experience of the companies’ production quality or customer service, this is just about their ranges as I see them in on the web.]

© WoT
© WoT

First and foremost I’d like to draw you attention to the World of Twilight. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say these are heavily inspired by Brian Froud’s work, especially the Dark Crystal. It’s so far from the brash, over-the-top fantasy we’ve seen day-in, day-out that it’s a cleansing breath of air. The subtle charm is compelling. You can get in on the action with the new Kickstarter if you like.

My next big suggestion is for Flytrap Factory, who have a number of ranges that are most definitely approaching gaming from a different angle. With a vibe reminiscent of Duncton Wood, The Rats of Nimh and Redwall (and perhaps a dash of Ewok) the Netherworld’s Edge range has the right amount of whimsy without getting cutesy.

© Flytrap Factory Ltd
© Flytrap Factory Ltd

Similarly, the Warpod sci-fi miniatures could be all too cute for my liking, but somehow the drab military colours and subtle posing puts me more in mind of V.I.N.CENT than T-Bob. Simple but oozing with character.

© Flytrap Factory Ltd
© Flytrap Factory Ltd

And even more left field, Flytrap Factory have Caveman vs Wild. Personality is such a hard thing to capture in art, especially a miniature, but these succeed where so many po-faced muscle-bound barbarians, skinny elves and cloned dwarfs have failed before.

© Flytrap Factory Ltd
© Flytrap Factory Ltd

Going back to something a little more like Anyaral, Zombiesmith have their Quar range. I would describe it is a weird WWI, ‘tween-wars’ sort of look, but that really doesn’t do them justice. Even better, they’re available in a variety of scales depending on what sort of battles you like to fight.

© Zombiesmith
© Zombiesmith

Zombiesmith are also responsible for the War of Ashes setting, which is another entertaining take on populating a world without any humans or standard fantasy tropes. I’m not quite as taken by the Storm of Steel miniatures, but there are also some cracking (and barking mad) entrants in their sci-fi and fantasy ranges.

© Zombiesmith
© Zombiesmith

In terms of a setting that is striking out on its own, a mention has to be given to Antimatter Games and their Deepwars/ Shadowsea universe. Wet fun for everyone.

© Antimatter Games
© Antimatter Games

On the other end of the scale, here’s a shout-out for fans of big mecha. Fil Dunn’s Filbot kits look spectacular, with a futuristic but believable feel to his constructions. I’ve never been one hundred per cent convinced by the Battletech clunky-humanoid approach. I am, however, a huge fan of big robots blowing up other big robots and look forward to seeing Fil expanding the range in the coming months.

© Filbot
© Filbot

A curious mix of reimagined fantasy archetypes and a more fairytale-cum-folklore-ish whimsy can be found in Tor Gaming’s Relics range. While there’s nothing traditional about their Orcnar, somewhat Hellyboy Tooth fairy-esque Vaettir, and Nuem, it’s the Britanen that really caught my eye. These can also be used in your fantasy football game of choice.

© Tor Gaming
© Tor Gaming

Heading a lot further down the path to Bonkersville takes us to Eureka, and particularly their Pond Wars range. Battles between frogs, rabbits, turtles and terrapins? That is certainly something we don’t see every day. And if that is not quite your  cup of tea (why not?) check out their Teddy Bears, Toy Town and Winged Fezzed Monkeys. Or another take on Warrior Mice. Unfortunately the website is clunky and in need of a serious makeover.

© Eureka Miniatures
© Eureka Miniatures

And if you need more Flying Monkeys, or perhaps carnivorous Blood Trees, there is always Fanticide by Alien Dungeon. With contributions from rules writerly types Rick Priestley, Andy Chambers  and Alessio Cavatore that’s quite a by-line.

© Alien Dungeon
© Alien Dungeon

Lastly, because I grew up with Keep on the Borderlands, I’d like to point out that there was a time when orcs were not green and didn’t look like, well, those GW orcs/ks. There are still a few enclaves of these other-orcs out there (not including Middle Earth ranges) and I’d like to direct your attention to Otherworld Miniatures and their pig-faced orcs, if only because it takes me back to those pre-teen days.

© Otherworld Miniatures
© Otherworld Miniatures

This is by no means an exhaustive guide, nor is it meant to detract from the efforts and skills of anyone else, but I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing what lies beyond the run-of-the-mill knights and necromancers. One of the more depressing experiences whilst researching this article was the number of dead links to defunct manufacturers. Let’s celebrate variety, and reward not just rendering skill but design originality and creativity.

Don’t be shy, share a few gems in the comments, particularly any sci-fi pioneers out there.

Happy Gaming!

Gav