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On the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons (1974) -- A dark turn in the pop-culture? (Part Ten)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted March 18, 2024

Games Workshop - Warhammer

Another major company is Games Workshop, which supports boardgames, miniatures, and RPGs based on its WARHAMMER and WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. backgrounds. The WARHAMMER background is dark-tinged fantasy. The WARHAMMER 40,000 A.D. (or 40K) universe is utterly ferocious, a very dark space fantasy, summarized by the phrase: "In the grim darkness of the future, there is only war." In such a universe, there is no place for "soft religions" or "soft emotions." Earth's stellar empire is guarded by ultra-elite, very heavily armored, Space Marines, who battle against all manner of hideous foes (Genestealers, Tyrannids, and so forth) reminiscent of the Alien/s movie series. Another race somewhat allied to the humans is the Eldar. One finds that, despite the viciousness of the universe, there is an element of campiness in the whole construct. For example, there are Eldar warriors with Chinese Tao emblems, and the Orks who talk in a combination of English "yob" and African-American slang. It is probably not a coincidence that Warhammer/Warhammer 40,000 A.D. arose in Great Britain. Some have indeed suggested that it might have some degree of appeal to "fascist or skinhead elements." A fair number of "tie-in" novels placed in the universe are available. Indeed, the combined Warhammer universe could be seen as a fairly major, self-standing branch of gaming. In some large North American cities, it was able to support stores devoted exclusively to itself.

An example of the more lurid side of WARHAMMER 40K is the art-book, Inquis Exterminatus: Images from the Dark Millennium. The images portrayed and the supporting text seem like a grotesque parody of the Middle Ages, and of medieval Catholicism.

Other RPGs

Let us now move on to other material. There is Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu, the main RPG based on H.P. Lovecraft's delirious horror-stories. The central premise of Lovecraft's writing is the existence of malevolent, very powerful, demonic creatures that will eventually come to dominate Earth – "when the stars are right." These creatures have "slept" for many millennia, but are now beginning to awaken, encouraged by cultists grouped in various cabals. Pagan Publishing has produced a supplement to that game, called Delta Green, which enhances the Cthulhu mythos with extensive, surreal conspiracies. Delta Green is the name of the fictitious super-secret U.S. government agency – that now operates in deep cover – which is trying to combat the rising tide of evil. Two other games with occult themes are Obsidian: The Age of Judgement and Kult. The latter is based on the premise that God is an evil Demiurge that tortures humankind by imposing "Illusion" on them. Only a few occult practitioners can see the "Truth" – although at the same time the collapse of the barriers of Illusion bring various demons and evil creatures into the physical world. Interestingly enough, Kult was originally conceived by Swedish roleplayers, perhaps showing the nihilism that can arise in that social democratic "paradise". Obsidian, put out by a company called The Apophis Consortium, is based on the premise that demons have overrun almost all of the Earth except a Bastion which is a gigantic building.

A game based on secret conflict between different occult groupings on Earth is Unknown Armies, by Atlas Games. Another RPG from Atlas Games is Over the Edge, a game of atmospheric horror, set on the mythical Mediterranean island of Al Amarja. Nightfall Games have brought out a game of a very dark future, SLA Industries. Players compete with each other in gladiatorial-like fashion (using various futuristic weapons) under the direction of a vicious corporation, striving to become the most successful killers, and thereby win success and notoriety as "entertainment" figures, in the utterly debased media (who are also all owned by the all-powerful corporation).

Already in the 1980s, there had appeared a darkly satirical RPG called Paranoia, based on the premise of klutzy clones living in an underground complex run by a nasty, paranoid computer. The RPG inverted many of the standard roleplaying tropes, such as concern for one's player-character. Indeed, in Paranoia, the clones were continually being killed off, or meeting various gruesome accidents. It seemed like an off-the-wall kind of humor that would probably appeal mostly to rather jaded and cynical people.

The Whispering Vault (from Ronin Publishing) is another popular, Cthulhu-like setting. There was an RPG simply called Psychosis (from Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment) – a company that no longer exists. Last Unicorn Games' Heresy, a "post-apocalyptic" setting, combined various religious and social transgressions – although that setting was dropped by the company in favor of concentrating on Star Trek. Last Unicorn Games was also introducing darker elements into its flagship setting, the Star Trek universe. These included the portrayal of the more "twilight" world around Bajor (Deep Space Nine) as well as modules for roleplaying in the Star Trek "Crossover" universe, where instead of the benign Federation, there was an evil Empire, with the starship crews continually plotting against each other, and indulging in the most variegated vices. Of course, this evolution in Star Trek RPGs is itself derived from the dark turn in the evolving portrayal of Star Trek in television and film, notably with the arrival of the very powerful, evil Borg and Dominion. One could mention here a fairly interesting book critical of many aspects of Star Trek, Michael Hertenstein's, The Double Vision of Star Trek: Half-Humans, Evil Twins, and Science Fiction (Chicago: Cornerstone Press, 1998).

Last Unicorn Games had been briefly taken over by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast. Because of earlier contractual arrangements, the takeover resulted in Last Unicorn Games' loss of rights to Star Trek-based products. The major collectible card game (CCG) company, Decipher, had acquired the rights to produce roleplaying products based on Star Trek. And they then hired most of the former Last Unicorn Games' employees. However, Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast holds the right to produce roleplaying and board games based on the enormously popular Star Wars background, which it acquired when the company West End Games (who had produced an earlier Star Wars RPG), went under. It was announced in January 2002, that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast had also picked up the CCG or TCG (Trading Card Game) rights to the Star Wars universe. Until that time, Decipher had produced an extensive array of Star Wars CCG products.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.


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