Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Undead in Dark•Heritage

I've blogged before about my love in general for the Undead as a monster type.  Here, for instance.  And I've talked plenty about the Warhammer setting, which I think is pretty nifty, and does a number of things that I also like, including (but not limited to) their interpretation of the Undead, which in many ways I'd like to borrow from rather heavily.  As this Halloween season is upon us, I'd like to talk just a bit more about the Undead, the Warhammer Undead in particular, and what use I can get from them.  While we do this, to set the mood, why don't you hit play on the video below, to hear the first track of the soundtrack to Bram Stoker's Dracula.  While it's playing, you can scroll down and keep reading.


Now.  I'm also on record (see my first link above) as thinking that there are too many Undead monsters in general.  Most of them are minor variations on only a handful of original themes.  And Warhammer has a lot of Undead.

To recap, for those who aren't already familiar with it, the Warhammer game has had Undead from pretty much its inception in the early 80s.  Back then, the Undead were a single army list, and things like mummies and vampires were assumed to march together.  Keep in mind that Warhammer is primarily a miniatures battle game, and therefore its goal was to create interesting army lists rather than to necessarily represent a coherent setting.

But this seems to have gradually changed somewhat; a number of "lumped" armies were split into different thematic elements in order to better align with the fiction of the setting.  Chaos, for instance, became three armies: warriors, daemons and beastmen, which are all separate, but who sometimes ally with each other.  This happened to the Undead as well, and they split into two armies, the skeletal Tomb Kings with a dry, Egyptian-like theme, and the Vampire Counts with a more eastern European Dracula and whatnot type feel.  This change didn't happen until the 6th edition, though—in Y2k—so it's a relatively recent change.

More recently yet, for the End Times, Nagash has been reborn, and with him are a handful of his most important and infamous generals—Arkhan the Black, his most trusted lieutenant while yet alive, Neferata, the first of the vampires, and Mannfred von Carstein, arguably the most powerful of the vampires.  Under the influence of these most powerful of Undead, including Nagash, the founder of the entire art of Necromancy and the Father of the Undead (both types) the two armies were, again, brought together in alliance, at least, and you can again create an army list that mixes Tomb Kings and Vampire Counts forces under the aegis of a reunited Undead.

What I'd like to do is go through the entire list, including links to images of the miniatures (I wish they had art instead of miniatures, but finding really good art of the miniatures themselves is harder than it should be).  I'll summarize what each type of monster is, and then briefly talk about whether or not I think there's a place for it in the DARK•HERITAGE setting or not, and if so, what kind of place.  For my money, I'd prefer to see many of these as almost individualistic creatures rather than "troop types" if I use them, or I'd use various of them as merely variants on the same theme.  But let's get to it, shall we?

Nagash, Supreme Lord of the Undead
Click on the images to make them larger, if needed.  The first here is Nagash himself.  As the Father of All Undead, now reborn as a kind of God of Undeath, if you will, he's a towering figure both literally and figuratively in the setting of Warhammer.  Monstrously sized, and still bearing the Egyptian like iconography that was his birthright in life, Nagash is an awesome piece of sculpture, and one of the few characters to have really great artwork associated with him—although don't take my word for it.  Do some Google Image Search for yourself!  I'd post some, but I already have many times.

As discussed with my CULT OF UNDEATH thread and mini-setting, which is set in Tarush Noptii, my own vampiric kingdom more closely resembles the Vampire Counts in tone and theme than the Tomb Kings (although the Tomb Kings could represent even more ancient vampiric expansions of the distant past.) My closest analog to a Nagash like figure is probably Tarush himself.  I've never really described exactly what he is.  Is he a god?  Is he a mortal Necromancer turned larger than life due to his own fell sorcery?  I think of Tarush as somewhat like Kina from the Black Company in most respects, and those questions about her are not necessarily clearly answered either.

Going through the list of miniatures online (which doesn't necessarily have an order that makes sense) we get next to the Blood Knights, semi-feudal vampires that ride on horses and fight as knights, basically.  Being vampires, of course, they are rather savage and bloodthirsty (literally) compared to other knights, and have a host of supernatural abilities.

My conception of Tarush Noptii is that it is primarily a mortal kingdom, although certainly ruled over by an undead (i.e., vampire) aristocracy.  The notion that there could be some of these vampires who are sadistic and bloodthirsty hand to hand combat juggernauts is not in the least out of character, although ranking them up as heavy cavalry probably is.  The nature of the the vampire aristocracy is that they tend to be very individualistic.

Neferata mounted on Dread Abyssal
Neferata, the Mortarch of Blood is next in our list.  The same kit can also render either of the other two Mortarchs, Mannfred von Carstein or Arkhan the Black, but rather than post images of all three, just click on the links above to see them.  They're all quite similar.  Arkhan is perhaps a little different to the other two, as they're vampires and Arkhan is a lich.  As such, he has a much more skeletal visage and doesn't need to drink blood, but that's more cosmetic than anything else.  All three are potent warriors and sorcerers who are almost impossible to kill—really the main feature of any evil champion.

All three ride on dread abyssals; some kind of demonic creature in a skeletal monster form, stuffed with the ethereal skulls of souls that they devoured in the afterlife or something like that.  These monstrous skeletal bodies were wrought by Nagash himself, in part as a display of his mastery over the concept of Undeath and his godlike power.  I could certainly see the dread abyssals, or something very like them, having a place somewhere in DARK•HERITAGE.  They're cool.  As for characters like Arkhan or Neferata or Mannfred; again, I don't make so many distinctions between types of "supervillains."  All three could qualify as equivalents of the Ten Who Were Taken in the Black Company, and therefore all three could qualify as part of the Heresiarchy of the Twelve in DARK•HERITAGE which is a similar concept.  The first thing any sorcerer who aspires to that level of power does is to make himself functionally immortal.  Whether that's through something like conventional lich-hood or vampirism or some other method is less important than the end result, really.

Mortis Engine
The Mortis Engine is a massive model, but basically it's a Corpsemaster, a master necromancer, sitting on a throne that's borne into battle by a horde of banshees and other spectral ghost-like creatures.  To be honest with you, I prefer to again minimize the distinctiveness of various creatures. Ghosts, banshees, wraiths, spirits, phantoms, spooks, poltergeists, etc.—they're all really just disembodied spirits of some kind.  While the details of the manifestation of any such disembodied spirit may differ somewhat, is there really a conceptual difference between any of these?  I think not.  In DARK•HERITAGE while certainly a ghost may have a banshee scream, or a wraith's life-draining touch, they really aren't different classes of monster; that's just individual variation among them.

The Coven Throne is another variation on this same model, and it's also a variation on the same concept.  Rather than a Corpsemaster, it has a reclining female vampire attended to by her attendants, on a palanquin carried by the same types of spirits (literally the same models, of course) as that of the Mortis Engine.  I can see why from an army list standpoint they'd maybe be separate, but I can't imagine any reason why my setting would need to make a distinction between a Coven Throne and a Mortis Engine.  And since open battle between monsters is more of a Warhammer thing than a DARK•HERITAGE thing anyway, I'm not sure that I'd ever have any need for either of them anyway except as a bit of color.

Morghast Archai
The difference between the Morghast Archai and Morghast Harbingers is really more about having different weapons; this big Grim Reaper-like pole-arm with a ghostly wailing haft (pictured, left), or big paired sword-like blades.  The Morghasts are supposedly the corpses of some type of pseudo-angelic being sent by the Egyptian-esque god Ptra to kill Nagash many thousands of years ago.  He killed them instead and turned them into monstrous, flying undead things.  Their bodies are stuffed with the ethereal skulls of the victims of their deadly blades.

These are a really arcane and esoteric type of creature, but they also are not terribly unlike the dread abyssals, which I can see a place for.  I do have angelic like creatures already in DARK•HERITAGE and I can see a place for a real master of the undead to turn them into a cruel, blasphemous parody of their original purpose as an undead creature, not unlike the morghast.  Mor-, of course, is probably from Tolkien's own use of the prefix (as in Mordor) because it has the proper sound to readers of fantasy to be "evil."  Because it also sounds like mortis, the Latin word for death, it gets double the exposure as sounding "bad."  Ghast is a D&D creature; a kind of more powerful ghoul, but the name seems to have been coined originally by H. P. Lovecraft in his Dreamlands stories.  It's obviously a based on the word ghastly, which actually comes from the Middle English word gast which led to—not only ghastly but also the English word ghost.  A ghast is just, then, an alternate spelling, if you will, that never quite made it into being a real word, of ghost, and it is meant to be the same thing.  It's also cognate with the German word geist, as in poltergeist.  Keep that thought in mind as we proceed to more creatures....

Ghoul King mounted on Terrorgheist
The next kit is the Zombie Dragon with Vampire Lord or Terrorgheist with Ghoul King.  A zombie dragon is pretty much what it sounds like (although animated mummified dragon would probably better describe the model) and the terrorgheist is supposedly some kind of pseudo-skeletal super-gigantic bat creature.  In reality, conceptually the terrorgheist is no different than the fell beasts from Lord of the Rings, although with a less overtly scaly dragon-like appearance than the movie gave them (which is fine.  I'm a much bigger fan of the books than I am of the movies.)  The name terrorgheist is actually kind of interesting, because gheist is very similar (deliberately) to geist, but with the added [h] it makes it look more like ghost.  I like the concept that poltergeists are merely one manifestation of the the concept of different kinds of -geists.  But -geists should be ghosts, not gigantic bat things.  I love the concept of the gigantic undead skeletal bat thing, but it's not unique to Warhammer, just the specific visual.

I also don't think that there's really a difference between a "vampire lord" and a "ghoul king" other than a bit of thematic cosmetics.  A ghoul king is a more savage flesh-eating, ugly type of vampire, while a vampire lord is a more traditional, romanticized Dracula-style vampire.  But they're both vampiric monsters.

The Casket of Skulls is basically the Ark of the Covenant from Raiders of the Lost Ark except instead of a French archaeologist allied with Nazis opening it, it's a Lich King.  While the Ark of the Covenant is a bit too "done already" for my taste to be used without being an obvious call-back to Raiders, the Lich Kings are important.  In reality, from my perspective there's only minor differences between a lich and a vampire.  The vampires are more human-like in appearance in most respects; the liches bodies having rotted away to a skeletal, mummified husk, and the vampires require feeding on the blood, flesh or life-force of the living, whereas liches merely hate the living, but do not require anything of them.  Ideally, for a master sorcerer, he'd have neither the weakness of needing human life force to sustain him, nor the weakness of a wasted physical appearance, but in reality, even the greatest of sorcerers usually fail to completely implement that, so they're left with at least one of the two drawbacks.  This is the primary difference between liches and vampires.

The Black Coach is a very iconic Dracula moment.  A haunted coach picked up Jonathan Harker and bore him to Castle Dracula.  Games Workshop has reimagined this as a war machine of sorts; the coach bears the coffin with the vampire in it, and rides over the battlefield, sucking the life and even blood from enemy troops that it runs down.  This is... well, it's a miniatures wargame, right?  It makes sense in that regard.

Of course, the concept of haunted coaches drawn by skeletal steeds and manned with wraith-like coachman is perfectly acceptable in DARK•HERITAGE, or as far as I'm concerned, just about any fantasy setting that is even tangentially related to Western civilization.

The Bone Giant is, surprisingly, not merely the animated skeleton of a giant, according to the Tomb Kings army book.  It is instead, basically, a really big golem made out of bones.

I'm a big fan of the notion that there isn't a real difference between golems and the animated undead.  Undead that actually feature the trapped soul of people are one thing, but being merely an animated corpse or whatever is no different than being an animated anything else, therefore you could almost consider any mindless undead as merely a golem made from a human body.  Of course, in many systems, such as D&D, golems are very powerful adversaries whereas skeletons and zombies and other mere animated corpses are not.  Do with them as you will.  I actually prefer zombies to be more like the original Haitian folklore of zombies.  Zombies of modern zombie pop culture have actually picked up a number of traits that were originally more associated with vampires and other revenants.  I like the notion of undead creatures being somewhat more like Frankenstein's monster or Herbert West's reanimated corpses, which are—as it happens—basically flesh golems in D&D terms.

Sepulchral Stalkers
The Sepuchral Stalkers and Necropolis Knights are two different troop types in the same kit.  As above, they have a golem-like quality to them—they are basically animated snake statues with an undead patina laid over top of them.  The Necropolis Knights are animated statues of cobras with a golden human skull-like (but fanged) mask, ridden by skeleton warriors.  The Sepuchral Stalkers use most of the same parts in the kit, but they actually have a core of a human corpse in their torso and carry weapons with bony human arms, as pictured there to the right. The latter even hide beneath the desert sands, rising up in ambush.  The idea of human corpses merged with animalistic statues and animated isn't something that would be foreign to DARK•HERITAGE. In fact, I can see expanding this beyond the merely snake-like into other animal forms as well, maybe.  Heck, the Soulhunters from Privateer Press's Cryx armies (worthy of another similar post someday, for sure!) are kind of the same concept, except in "undead centaur" form.

Speaking of which, the Necrosphinx is another animated golem in human-animal hybrid form.  Shaped like a leonine centaur with a massive humanoid torso and muscular arms bearing ghastly gigantic blades, and Egyptian sarcophagus like iconography, the Necrosphinx is a real showpiece of a miniature and monster—although again, unless you decide that "undead" and "animated statue" aren't really significantly different from each other, exactly how it fits into an "undead" army is a little obscure, in my opinion.

The model can also be made as a Khemrian Warsphinx, which uses the same leonine body, but instead of the human-like torso, it has a neck and skeletal sabertooth-like head, and on its back is a howdah for skeletal warriors.  If golems and sepulchral stalkers or Necropolis knights can fit in DARK•HERITAGE than certainly something like this can as well—although maybe it's a bit too distinctive to the Warhammer world at this point.

Carrion are gigantic undead vultures.  I'm not even going to link to the image, because I actually think the models aren't that great, and because they're already similar to fell beasts, as noted above.  Conceptually they're no different, although the terrorgheist model is certainly much larger and more impressive than the carrion models.

Another one I won't link to an image to is the ushabti, either with great weapons or with gigantic bows.  They are also stone golems, basically—9-10 foot tall statues of animal-headed warriors with a very Egyptian like look.  Since clearly in Warhammer, at least for the Tomb Kings army, golems and undead are basically the same, these fit into that same kind of niche.

Yet another one that doesn't need linking to an image: fell bats.  Described as such: "Fell bats bear as much resemblance to ordinary bats as maddened lion bears to a domestic cat."  You get the idea.  Really big, monstrous bats.

Crypt Horrors are basically super-ghouls.  They bear a strong resemblance to ghouls, except for the ruptured spines with bone spurs and stuff sticking out of their backs.  The kit can also be used to create vargheists, which are basically devolved vampires that have succumbed to savagery and bestiality until any aspect of their humanity has been stripped away.  Vargheists are also winged, but the concept doesn't require that they be.  In fact, I think that ghouls are basically just uglier and more savage versions of the vampire concept to begin with, so they're on the same spectrum as vargheists in that regard.  I really don't see any compelling reason to keep them separate, especially if I want my vampires to not be too cliche and be stuck with all of the Dracula conceits, which to be fair, most vampires in fiction do.  Varghulfs, on the other hand, seem to be conceptually the exact same as the vargheists, but they're bigger and more powerful, looking even less like anything humanoid and even more like some kind of gigantic bat-monster.

I'll skip the Screaming Skulls catapult as a warmachine more geared towards an army game than one that I'd have any need for.  The Tomb Guard come next, and they're basically the same as those mummified priests that Brendan Frasier has to fight in The Mummy.  No need to picture them again here.  The Grave Guard are the Vampire Counts equivalent to them Tomb Guard, and they are specifically called out as wights; embodied and relatively powerful undead best exemplified by the barrow-wights of Tolkien or the draugr of Norse mythology and several Norse sagas—ultimately Tolkien's source too.  Warhammer also has Tomb Heralds, but these are just standard bearing Tomb Guard champions, not another concept.

I'll also skip the named characters, such as Settra the Imperishable, or Count Mannfred (actually the same character as the Mannfred named above, but this is an earlier version of him, and one not mounted on a dread abyssal.)  There's also a third version of Mannfred, as well as other von Carsteins—Isabella, Vlad, etc. and many other characters.  I'll skip them all in favor of coming up with my own unique characters, thankyouverymuch.

Corpse cart
I'm also going to skip the next few entries, after merely acknowledging their obvious existence—the humble foot soldiers of the undead: animated corpses.  Zombies, skeletons, armored skeletons, skeleton cavalry mounted on skeletal horses, skeletons on bone chariots drawn by skeletal horses, etc.  I will acknowledge the most unique among these types of models, though—the corpse cart.  Drawn by zombies and covered in impaled zombies writhing on its frame, and driven by a "macabre, shrouded figure" that could be a necromancer or something else, it's a real visual treat, if nothing else.

And I'm also going to skip solo models that are not really unique.  I've already talked about vampires, liches, wights and ghouls, for instance, plenty, so there's no need to point out that yes, there is a Vampire Lord and a Mounted Vampire Lord; there are Tomb Kings and a Lich Priest, and Wight Kings, and Necromancers.  Duh.  The models have to exist, but I've already talked about them in connection with something else, so I'll skip those entries.  There actually aren't too many left that I haven't already covered, and of those, even fewer yet that aren't merely variations on a theme that we've already talked about.

For instance, Black Knights are visually obviously drawn from the Black Riders of Tolkien, but in reality, conceptually they are simply mounted barrow-wights.

There's the Spirit Host and the Banshee, but I'll call them variations on the ghost theme and be done with it.  Swarms of bats, giant scorpions, and zombie undead wolves round out much of what else you'd expect (or maybe not, giant scorpion?  I guess that sounds vaguely fantasy Egypt like or something) from an undead army, and the final pieces are cairn wraiths and hexwraiths, although the only difference seems to be that the latter is mounted and the former is not.  An amalgam of archetypes including the ghost, the Ringwraiths and the Grim Reaper, these are relatively powerful, incorporeal creatures.

While a few of these concepts are probably too specific to the Warhammer setting to sit very comfortably elsewhere, most others (as is typical of that setting) come from somewhere else originally anyway, and can easily be ported into any fantasy setting without too much explanation of where they fit, assuming of course, that any kind of undeath is a thing in said fantasy setting to begin with.

Having a quick look at Forge World for alternate and rarer miniatures, we get the Mourngul, which is conceptually very similar to the wendigo myth; a famine spirit, if you will, eternally hungry and more solo; less likely to be part of any type of army.

This brings to mind another point, which I'm make briefly, but which is only tangentially related.  In the Iron Kingdoms setting, there were a number of monsters that were meant to be "solos" if you will.  As the Warmachine game became more popular, there was increasing pressure to use some of these monsters and ally them with one of the existing factions.  Therefore, guys like the pistol wraiths, machine wraiths, the cephalyx, etc. had to be shoe-horned into an existing armies.  Some of them (the cephalyx) they later backed off from on that, and made them "mercenaries" i.e., unaligned with any specific faction after all.

This is of course a problem with Warhammer, where all of these monsters are meant to be troop types in a fantasy army.  Some of them fit that archetype somewhat poorly, being essentially big monsters, or scary monsters, rather than troops.  But in many ways, if they fit the concept too poorly, they don't get added to the line-up in the first place.  One thing that is important for DARK•HERITAGE is to remember to decouple anything, regardless of source, from that paradigm.  There aren't armies of undead monsters marching through the setting.  Undead tend to be more individualistic and frightening monsters, not troops.

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