Study of a franchise

Geek fandoms

settings scifi warhammer

A defining aspect of geek culture, at least for me, is correlation. As a kid, I spent hours every day correlating different elements of a fictional universe to other elements within that universe, or else I'd correlate one fictional universe to a different one. That's why, for instance, the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, or those Time Life books about faeries and cryptozoology, were so captivating to me as a kid. They allowed geeks like me to obsess over, parse, and map data structures until, arguably, we geeks knew a fictional universe better than the people writing it.

The trope of the nerd fan explaining to a show producer why a plot was impossible according to the show's own rules isn't a joke. It happened, often. It still does, and it's a product of how geeks are entertained. We don't consume our entertainment. We process it.

There are a few properties that I think demonstrate this in practice. There are a few other properties that got it right, but faltered.

Success: Warhammer

The Warhammer universe is huge, both in its fictional setting and in this reality. The fictional universe of Warhammer has millions of inhabited planets and billions (trillions?) of humans and superhumans and aliens, many with a unique story.

Games Workshop, the company that creates Warhammer, designs and sells plastic miniatures for gaming. Here's their mission statement: "We make the best fantasy miniatures in the world, to engage and inspire our customers, and to sell our products globally at a profit."

It's refreshingly straight-forward, but according to their own mission statement, the lore of Warhammer is secondary to producing the "best fantasy miniatures". In addition to producing the best fantasy miniatures, they also sell paints, wargames, board games, rulebooks, fiction books, a magazine, and they license their fictional world to other companies who produce card games, video games, comic books, and more.

And yet their mission statement focuses on miniatures. It's rare for a company to have a comprehensive understanding of what it produces, much less the ability to focus so exclusively on it.

As far as I can tell, purely as an outsider, it seems this focus has an effect on how Warhammer is developed. A miniature is designed and produced, and while some people might buy miniatures just out of appreciation for tiny sculpture, more people will buy it when it can be used in a game. So a game is developed. A game in this context are rulebooks and codexes and datasheets, or boardgames and expansions. The game takes place in a fantastical world, and a lot of geeks are interested in fantasy and science fiction, so the story of the game deserves a book. So a book is written, containing lore and background stories and general explanations of the game setting. Animated shows are produced to further develop the lore. Video games are developed because they can take advantage of existing lore.

The universe within a game being played out by millions of people can't afford to be precise. It doesn't have to account for everything that happens at gaming tables, but it does have to leave room for it. That's a specialty of the Warhammer authors. The miniatures provide them a limited scope of what exactly to develop, while the games that use the miniatures demand an expansive setting full of new story hooks and campaign ideas. Instead of constant and aimless story development, there's an imposed focus.

Success: Paizo

Paizo has a similar working model. Most people think of Paizo as the publisher of the Pathfinder role playing game, and that's true. Historically though, the Pathfinder rulebook was incidental, and I think it continues to be. In 2009, when Wizards of the Coast misfired (not for the last time) and released a non-open 4th Edition of D&D, Paizo was one of the most prolific publishers of D&D adventures. Their adventures were some of the best in the business, but over night they became a publisher of adventures for a game they didn't have permission to publish for. So they took the previous open edition of D&D, put a new name on the front cover, and published a rulebook.

Today, they remain one of the (maybe just the) most prolific RPG publishers. They happen to have a few rulebooks and a bestiary, but in spirit they're their own third party. They fill that gap between rules and players with excellent content. The write and sell adventures, which are even available as a subscription service. They publish player and campaign guides, which expand the lore around a specific adventure. They have source books that expand the lore of Golarion, and card decks for equipment, battle maps, and even novels. They've licensed their world out for video games, comic books, and miniatures.

They're a success, but that's not why they're a successful geek property. I think what they've got right, most of all, is their willingness to provide metadata about their world. D&D has always been an easy attraction for geeks. It's a game with over 100 pages of data about imaginary monsters. Paizo staunchly maintains that tradition. In their source books, they publish statistics for traps and effects, for cities and societies. You get "real" (imaginary) data about the setting, and for geeks that's valuable. I might never actually need to know how likely it is that you'll find jade trinkets in Geb, but darn it when I want to know, I want to know. It's not just a matter of "geek pride" or anything superficial like that. When you're developing an adventure set in a pre-existing setting, you want to know these things so that your adventure and somebody else's adventure can be run one after the other with no break in continuity.

Success: Marvel

Lately, mainstream pop culture has largely adopted geek culture as a driving force. This has rendered some surprising new trends in media. When Pulp Fiction came out, "normal" people were transformed overnight into film nerds when they started to realize that this director's films were all set in the same "universe" because more than one of his movies referenced the same fictional restaurant. This wasn't actually new or unique to Pulp Fiction but it was, at least to my memory, the first time a lot of people became aware of the concept of a fictional world as an established and developing setting.

It eventually caught on, and today we have Marvel comic book movies that reference each other and even concurrent TV shows. In the obligatory split of Marvel-or-DC comics, I fall in with DC (Batman and Wonder Woman, mostly), but that doesn't mean I'd watch a DC movie or TV show. For as little as I knew about Marvel back when the first Iron Man movie came out, I'm practically an expert now, like most everybody else. Marvel has successfully maintained continuity throughout its properties, with explanations (which are, amazingly, often grounded in the lore of the comic books) for practically decision that makes it into a movie or TV series. Whether you like Marvel or not, you have to admit that it's a geek property that not only caters to geeks but also to the geek-curious and the wholly non-geek.

Fail: Star Wars

Star Wars was once a pioneer for geek theorycrafting, but then it became self-aware. Suddenly everything had to connect to everything else. Nothing stood on its own. In a fictional galaxy of millions of planets spanning millions of lightyears, somehow nothing stood alone and everything pointed back to the same two or three characters. They tried to dictate the geek correlation technique, and only succeeded in reducing the data set.

There are lots of other tragic failures, including DC and Star Trek and Game of Thrones and Walking Dead and D&D and Magic: The Gathering and, well, too many to mention. The razor's edge that divides geek from imitation-geek has been the bane of many a show producer. When you're outside looking in, I guess it looks easier than it actually is. (I'll have to write a separate post on why it's vital for a product to be created by users of the product.)

Gaming culture

The role of the project manager has been replaced by the project. The myth of the auteur has been replaced by the reality of the audience.

Geeks love to parse, catalogue, and correlate data. There are only a few companies allowing me to do that, at my own pace, through so many different mediums. For now, those companies serve as a good illustration of a winning formula for fiction pipelines and gaming materials, and I hope pop culture takes a lesson. Or maybe I don't. Pop culture can't, by definition, actually be geek culture. It can mimic it here and there, but ultimately getting it right requires restraint, pragmatism, focus, and an understanding of the scope of what geeks actually want.

All images in this post copyright Games Workshop.

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