Monday, 30 July 2012

Creating Fluff: Sources of Inspiration and General Theory

It's all about the fluff. Delicious fluff
This is a post I've wanted to do for a while, but have put off because it actually needs a bit of thought. It's also one that feels like I'm stating the obvious, but a few people have expressed an interest to me about such a post so here it goes... The focus is very much on 40k, because that's what I know and love best – but I'm sure the principles apply to many other sci-fi and fantasy games.

As I've stated before, for me fluff is very important. It seems in world of Warhammer for a while the fluffy player is second best, it's the tournament types that seem to have been the most vocal. This all seems to be shifting with 6th edition, and I'm rather happy about that. Even beyond the games of GW, fluff is till important. I don't care how good the rules are or how pretty the models are, if the fluff is lacklustre I'm not going to invest in that game or model set. And I love well-written rules, they're important, I love beautiful miniatures, I am a big fan of conversions big and small- but without the fluff the game and the miniatures are pointless and lifeless. The fluff gives them purpose and a whole other dimension. You're painting a particular faction and maybe know why they have such a livery, the models your converting have a reason they look like they do. Colonel Scipio's posts particularly bare this out (as would mine if I wasn't so lazy...), our games contribute to a continuing and interconnected story.

There's more to fluff than this

Different people obviously have different levels of fluff they consider to be the bare minimum. Some people are happy with just a name before they get rolling the dice. These people are naturally a waste of human life. No, that's not true at all, I really don't expect people to have the same obsession with fluff as me (and I'm not even the sort of person that argues the minutiae of “canon”...). There is space in this hobby for everyone to focus on what they want to focus on, and as long as everyone accepts that people do have different focuses forum bickering could become a thing of the past. Who am I kidding, there's always someone on the internet who's wrong...

Anyway, back to the point. I often get questions about my Space Marine stuff. It seems for a fair few people, Space Marine fluff is what they read about Blood Angels, Ultramarines and the Horus Heresy books. They don't even think that there is a brilliant framework there for them to create their own Chapter – or Guard Regiment, or Chaos Warband, Eldar warhost or whatever. Many are new to wargaming, so this is fair enough. But I would love for all them to take the plunge and have a go at creating their own stuff – it's much more fun than painting up another Cadian or Ultramarine clone force (without knowing or embracing their existing that fluff that is). If you're going to invest reasonable amounts of cash in these models, make the army yours. It doesn't take much to make the army more personal, just naming your characters instantly adds another dimension and makes them more than just a miniature.

The Importance of Visuals: Key reference images for the Spears of Mawdryn (credits below)

So without further ado, here's Headologist's Undefinitive Guide to Background Creation

1. Be a little bit different

This is not necessarily too important, but I think it's a good starting point if you want something that is very much yours. When I say be different, I don't mean fight against the existing fluff, because that really doesn't seem to work to well. Nerds will hate you. I know how it feels, I actually like Squats, and as such am a pariah in their eyes. That's not really the reason, I just find you end up with a better narrative. It's better to look for interesting twists within the existing framework.

2. The right fluff with the right force

Firstly, think about the sort of army you want to play: fast hit-and-run types, slow besieging types, very shooty, or very stabby? This will be important in developing your fluff as your fluff will work best if it reflects this, and although I went on about the importance of fluff, it's really a healthy balanced diet of fluff, gaming and models that's preferred by 9 out 10 gamers. Well, I think so.

It also means picking the right army for the fluff, if you have a burning desire to see Napoleonic troops wielding lasguns, then Imperial Guard are the best choice for you, whilst Eldar have pointy hats, they don't fit shakos too well. When looking at historical themes, Space Marines tend to fit pre-gunpowder themes, whereas Imperial Guard are better for post gunpowder. If you want to do something slightly anime inspired, Tau or even Eldar are obviously the way to go. Every army requires a slightly different approach, but if you look at the existing fluff there's always a starting point there to make the army a little bit more personalised.

3. Look at the Source Material
Looking for that slightly different twist starts here. Firstly, the better you know the generally established fluff, the easier it is the write your own. Secondly, once you've chosen your army, break down the existing concepts, ideas and inspirations as that gives you a guideline of where to start. Let's use the example of Space Marines and for this step ask the question, what are Space Marines? Well, they're a few things (overplayed...? Can you tell I'm really a Chaos / Nid player in unspiky Power Armour...), they can be defined as:

  • Genetically / Technological Advanced Super Soldiers
  • Crusading Knights... in Space (or Vikings, Mongolians... Samurai – generally a pre-gunpowder historical parallel)
  • Warrior Monks
  • Conspicuous.... Whilst they can be sneakyish – they do tend to be a bit conspicuous (being 7-foot tall armour-plated killing machines and whatnot), so I think “fast” rather than proper stealthy works better for Marines – something implemented in the Mawdryn fluff genesis

There are other ways the Marine definition could be broken down, but these will do for now. The other key thing to be thinking about in the early stages is a strong visual theme, again despite my fluff evangelism, this is a tabletop miniature game and the fluff and concepts are going to need to be clearly visible in some way in the miniatures to really have the whole package.

So, taking the Samurai concept briefly mentioned above, that would be visually stunning – but I think every man and his dog has thought of Samurai Marines, and various companies now produce components for such. This doesn't make it a bad idea, but we're looking to make this army yours...

So let's take a side step, but sticking with a Japanese-inspired theme, most Space Marines are monastics or some sort, so how about Warrior Monks of some sort. With many of the warrior monks of Japan, there is a clear visual concept to be inspired by, whether the robes, or the naginata glaives.

There is also the opportunity for the emphasis of the monastic life of the Marines, perhaps look to the strict discipline of Zen monastic life for ideas of structuring the day-to-day lives of your Chapter's Marines.

Look at the concepts of Zen. There are the ideas of mindfulness and meditation. With the idea of mindfulness, the Marines' daily lives can be about single mindedly focusing on the task at hand, whether eating or repairing their armour (just like real Buddhist monks) developing their battlefield awareness as a result. Similarly this ties in with the ideas of Kyudo, Japanese archery, in which focus is key. So you could have bolter training done in a very similar, ritualised way – and as a result the Chapter doctrine becomes one of precision. No bolt is wasted, no shot of a lascannon is without a purpose. They never wildly spray the foe with heavy bolter fire, every shot is carefully considered – and with the genetically enhanced mind of a Marine combined with Chapter training this is plausible in fluff terms. This is a quiet, implacable foe, calm and collected on the field, reserved in their speech. Silent but deadly ;) As a result you have a clear visual theme, a clear character, and plenty to build on.

You can also choose to go in different directions with the fluff, you could have zealous adherence to a particular holy text (a la the Lotus Sutra) which could then lead to problems with the Inquisition and give a route for further fluff development. You could also take a further sidestep and look at Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tibet has rather unique names, a rather unique script for use on banners, shoulder pads and whatnot, and certain strong visual themes. Lamas of a certain rank have plumed headdresses, this is something easily converted for your troops, or just your Chaplains perhaps. These are very specific examples, but hopefully it highlights the creative route I like to take when coming up with this nonsense.

Mythology and history – it all has something that can be built upon for fluff.

The fluff of the Spears of Mawdryn is very much based on history and increasingly mythology. Their fluff has gradually evolved over the years, inspired more by (predominantly) 13th-century Welsh history combined with the idea of using elements of the Welsh Mabinogion mythology, the early adoption of Late Roman imagery and a realisation that no matter how much I tried to make 13th-century Welsh tactics fit Space Marines (very light infantry ambush and run away...) it just didn't quite work; and so the the fluff slid much more towards the Romano-British/Arthurian theme as a whole, and allowed me to tie up various elements. They're a good example of getting everything to “fit.”

But there are of course otherwise of developing fluff, with Marines as an example, is there something wrong with their geneseed? What are the consequences of that? Do they have particular recruitment rituals? Gladiatorial combat perhaps (if so maybe, they can provide a bit of a visual reference too). These are all starting points from which to plot your fluff path.

Always try and think of something a little bit different to give your army that unique look and feel.

How about the Imperial Guard? Well, that can also be something cultural (Highlanders, swamp dwellers....) or tactical – something I've always loved is tunnel fighters and sewer rats (tunnels and urban decay are something I have an unnatural fondness for).

Maybe in their doctrine they're tightly drilled like Scipio's Palladian Guard, or perhaps they're little better than militia. If so, why?

Do they have particular ties to the Ecclesiarchy or the Adeptus Mechanicus? With Ecclesiarchy ties, perhaps they carry Russian style icons of the Emperor and Saints into battle and have Confessors that look like Rasputin (already working on this one with Scipio...).

Another “tactical” idea would perhaps be a bio-chemical warfare regiment, lots of hazmat suits. Maybe they have ties with Adeptus Mechanicus biology specialists, who are rather dubiously synthesizing Tyranid toxins and whatnot, which then leads to conflict with the likes of the Inquisition...

There is a lot of flexibility with Guard. You could make them the private army of a Rogue Trader, they don't necessarily have to be actual Guard.

And for the likes of Chaos, they don't need to be all spiky, they can have well thought out ideology and motivations for their adherence to choices. In fact, it probably works better.

And of course it's not just mythology and history that can be a starting point, films, books, games, TV shows, anything and everything. The key is boiling down the ideas and taking the key elements and transferring them to match with the right elements.

I think that's enough waffling for now, so in summary:
  • Be a bit different
  • Look at the source material and break it down
  • Have a clear visual idea and strong theme
  • Explore the variations
  • Make sure the fluff fits the relevant army
I shall hopefully be back to look a bit more at implementing these ideas, and perhaps a bit more general theory. I started writing too late last night (or rather too early...), and I've started waffling again, so time to stop for now...

Mawdryn banner image creditsImage 1: Jon Hodgson, cover for "Age of Arthur" WAB Supplement - link
Image 2: Comitatus Late Roman Living History Group - link
Image 3: Angus McBridge, Plate for "Arthur and the Anglo-Saxon Wars" Osprey Book - link
Image 4: Britannia Living History Group - link


  1. 1)This is, of course, superb. Excellent work.

    2) I do now, of course, feel like even more of a complete heel for owning the world's most boring Cadian army.

    3) "daily lives can be about single mindedly focusing on the task at hand, whether eating or repairing their armour". Hmmm... I wonder how Mrs. Drax would feel about me decalring that I intend to spend the day focussing solely on eating?!

    1. Very kind of you. You don't have the world's most boring Cadian army at all, every time I visit your blog I want to steal your Sentinels and Stormtroopers lol - and of course you have your regimental mascot which is superb lol.

      I think that focussing solely on eating counts as part of a noble quest for self improvement...

  2. Nice post and I agree with you greatly on the fluff aspect of things. My only project that lacks a personal fluff element is my Raven Guard marines and only because I liked the established background to the chapter.


    My Nurgle marine chapter, The Withering I made an effort on cos I was sick of seeing so many traditionally boring green or white and green armoured Deathguard.

    And I recently sent Col. Scipio a small write up on my burgeoning Guard (after he was kind enough to give me the link to his wonderful book on his Regiment’s background) – a Rogue Trader’s personal retinue, though my blog post doesn’t include it. (Will have to remedy that sometime.)

    Fluff is what this hobby is all about for me. Without it, it would be an empty affair, much like an uninspiring character in a paperndice rpg (Of which I’ve admittedly made a few). I have to get into a setting. I have to feel it has intrigue and excitement and call a piece of it my own much like you have described. Warmachine/Hordes quickly lost my interest because it was all “there”. All infront with little aside to grab my interest because there is little aside from the established fluff to go by or get my teeth into.

    Wait, I’m waffling now. It’s early here at work and I need more coffee. ~_~

    I think you get what I’m on about and if not, then I’m really in trouble.

    1. Love the Nurlge stuff and the Rogue Trrader retinue - very old school with a good twist. How have I missed both of those?! Look forward to seeing more fluff on your Rogue Trader retinue.

      I should probably make it much clearer that I don't have a problem with the use of pre-existing fluff at all, I'm not that egotistical lol. I suppose the thing I find a little disheartening is the quick dashing of paint on miniatures without caring about the associated background. It's very clear neither you or Drax do that

      Your description of fluff there describes it better than what I spent a whole ramble hinting at lol. That's spot on.

    2. Hey man, at least you are putting up posts like this that are relavent and articulate; my own (When they aren't just hobby updates) are typically lengthy aplogies for lack of hobby updates! ^_^

      Keep it coming mate.

    3. Thanks muchly, I only do posts like that to try and distract you all so you don't notice I've not done a proper hobby update in ages...

  3. Thanks for the post! Very interesting. I probably should have reread it before I posted up my 'bear bones' 1 page of fluff on my Thunder Guard. I'm looking forward to fattening out the ideas I have lined up for them in the future, so I will keep all these points in mind. ;)

    1. Just retyped my previous reply as that was written on my phone, which always seems to object to me commenting.

      Hope my opinionated post was of some help and my insomnia-induced ramblings didn't require too much deciphering. Going to try and revisit this stuff and cover more reas and elements a bit more coherently...

      You already have a superbly characterful looking army, and the fluff fits perfectly - the revived Thunder Guard reminds me of the privately raised units of the Boer War. (Given the Praetorian basis of your troops that ticks clear visuals and matching force and fluff boxes very well).

      The fluff you have there is different and it fits the look and aesthetic of your (beautiful!) miniatures. Really looking forward to reading more

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. They are superb, and I love how you did the plumes. Your fluff outline was spot on :) always liked the Macharian Heresy, The civil wars between Alexander the Great's generals transposed into 40k can never be a bad thing

  5. Apologies Col. Ackland, not sure how but I seem to have managed to have deleted your above comment :(

    I can't restore it but managed to copy and past it from a session in another tab. So for posterity here it is lol:-

    "Thanks heaps. Truthfully sometimes I am a little shocked that I painted the those cavalry. They are way better then the other stuff I have. I guess that's partly why I want to add so many more to them.

    To be honest I am pretty chuffed that you guys thought my fluff was ok. I was just having a bit of fun with it. I will certainly add more detail at some later stage :)" - Col. Ackland


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