When I am writing a tie-in novel I try never to assume that the reader is familiar with the background. This sounds strange, I know. After all, the developers have spent years building the world, the artists have provided us with beautiful illustrations so we know what everything looks like and hey, players have spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours enjoying the game. They know what an ork or Chaos Warrior looks like, don’t they? They may have read dozens of Warhammer novels already. It’s a fair assumption that someone picking up a Warhammer novel is going to be a Warhammer player, isn’t it?
Well, yes and no. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?) It’s certainly true that the vast majority of people who purchase Warhammer books are likely to be Warhammer players but people often pass books they like on to friends and I live in hope that they will do that with books I have written. Some of those friends may well not be Warhammer players. Sometimes, people in bookstores are simply attracted by an interesting cover and pick up the book too. They might not be players either. Even among players you cannot be certain of their level of knowledge about the game or the world in which it is set. They may be new players unfamiliar with all the details of the setting and all of the background. You cannot simply assume that everyone knows what an ork or a Chaos Warrior looks like even if you and all your friends and everyone you know does.
I think the best way to write a Warhammer tie-in is as if you were writing a fantasy or SF novel where you had to create the world from scratch. You’ll have a much more vivid and personal depiction of the world, you might surprise even the long term fan with some vivid and telling detail and you will catch the wonder and terror of the setting much more effectively if you try to look at it as if through the eyes of a total newcomer.
Ah but Bill you say, why rehash all of that background? Won’t it be deadly dull for those of us who already know it? Not if it’s done right. You should not simply reprint large chunks of the army books any more than you should write something like the orks arrived. You need to work in the background details without bludgeoning your reader with a huge info-dump. You want your reader to be interested in what is being said.
If you are going to have the orks arrive, in the Emperor’s name, have them do it vividly. Describe the vast host of half-wrecked looking buggies bouncing across the landscape, steam belching from their funnels. Show us those gnarly green-skin riders mounted on their gigantic motor-bikes, firing their bolt pistols into the air with the wild joy of speed. Show that monstrous figure kick in the metal door and loom out of the darkness, eyes glowing, roaring with maniacal laughter at the possibility of killing.
One simple way to make things vivid is to make it personal. If you want to convince us that Chaos Warriors are violent, don’t just tell us that. Show us the village where they crucified ever man, woman, child and dog. Show us where they got bored and covered their victims with oil and set them alight as offerings to their daemon gods. Show us that they got tired of that and speared a few victims to hear them scream.
You might then slip in the fact that war-bands have been doing this along the Kislev border since time immemorial and that this is why they are feared and hated by all sane people. Mention the fact that your hero knew someone who once rode into the Wastes to swear allegiance to Khorne. Have him wonder whether one of those black-armoured giants was his old friend.
If you want to show the temptations of the damned, have your hero wonder what it would be like to live like this; to be so powerful and so outside the boundaries of civilised norms. Have him ask what must it be like to be filled with daemonic power and drunk on barbaric faith? By the time you have finished, even someone who thinks Warhammer is a weapon used by medieval knights will have a pretty good idea of what a Chaos warrior is like. Players familiar with the game might be surprised by the emotional reaction too. And if you do it right, you won’t have bored them either. You will have shown them something about what it is like to live in the Warhammer world.
When describing something in a tie-in, you should rely on that hoary, old chestnut; show, don’t tell. In general, it’s best to reveal things through action. Want to show what an ork is like? Have him pick up a chainsword, tug at the ignition chain, eventually get the weapon to work, accidentally smash a control board and laugh delightedly at the damage. Have him test the weapon’s blade on his own arm, draw blood and roar even louder with maniacal mirth. If we were back in the days of comedy orks you might even have had him take his arm off and keep laughing. If you’ve already established that a chainsword is a big, heavy weapon, perhaps by having your hero struggle to lift it, so much the better. Having the ork lift it easily will show exactly how mighty he is.
Details are best shown by action. You could always write the Chaos warrior wore spiked armour.
Or you could demonstrate it like so: The Chaos Warrior drove the wrist-spike of his armour through Pickman’s eye and into his brain. He twisted it while Pickman screamed then pulled his head forward, spike still hooked through eye-socket and finished him with a blow to the back of the neck.
Your reader will be in no doubt that this Chaos Warrior wears spiked armour and for a reason. I find it useful to pick small, specific instances of a thing and illustrate them vividly rather than go for big generic ones. When you are looking at characters in your tie-in fiction you should be looking for the things that make them different and how you can show them. They don’t always need to be as psychotically violent as my previous examples but they do need to be as memorable and striking.
One area where you don’t want to go into details is rules. I think it best to avoid specific spell and rule names. If you are going to have a character use a spell, describe its effects. If you are going to illustrate a rule in action, describe what happens to the actual people in your story. If you want to show the effects of terror, show what it feels like. Show the towering daemon slashing left and right, opponent’s weapons buckling on its glowing flesh, invulnerable to normal magic, killing a score with the slash of its mighty runic axe. Don’t just say the daemon caused terror and the warriors ran away. Warhammer players will know what you mean, for sure, but they will be bored as well.
One important reason not to rely on player familiarity is that rules change and you can’t always rely on your readership to know how they once worked. I wrote the first Gotrek and Felix story in 1988. It’s still in print. The rules of Warhammer and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay have changed significantly in that time. There are people reading those stories for the first time today who were not even born when I was playing according to those rules. What are the chances they would know how they worked?
I am in the country today, away from our normal internet connection. I am sending this in via my wife’s mobile phone. Comments on this post may be delayed until we are back on Wednesday.