Thursday, March 16, 2006

Review: The Life of Sigmar

The Life of Sigmar
Author: Matt Raplph
Hardcover, 96 pages
Publisher: BL Publishing/Games Workshop (December 2005)

Overview: Author Matt Ralph's The Life of Sigmar is a collection of moral tales and legends about the divine founder of the Warhammer Fantasy Empire, Sigmar Heldenhammer. Several of the stories contained within- such as Sigmar's rescue of a Dwarfen king, or the Battle of Black Fire Pass, are established parts of the Warhammer cannon that are being fleshed out for the first time. Other legends are newly minted, and fill in gaps in the narrative of Sigmar's rise to power and the founding of the Empire. The Life of Sigmar presents itself as an example of the type of book that might be rolling of the first printing presses in the Empire in the present day of the campaign setting- its title page proclaims that it was printed in Altdorf in 2520 IC with the blessings of the Emperor, and a Printer's Introduction provides a little context for the stories.

Eleven stories of varying length are contained in the book, as well as an appendix that provides labels and explanations for the small illustrations that appear throughout the text. Six full-page black and white illustrations depict significant events in Sigmar's life, as well as a pictorial summary of Sigmar's life and a map of the tribal territories of the age of Sigmar at the front of the book.

The Good: Particularly for WFRP players and GMs, The Life of Sigmar does an excellent job of providing some additional color for the Warhammer world. The myths and stories that it contains can be used as the basis of some 'common culture' for characters from the Empire. Most Imperials would have heard most of these stories growing up, and Sigmarite preachers might make reference to them when delivering sermons. This is a big boon for WFRP fans, helping the Old World feel like more of a 'real' place with its own culture and history.

Each individual story does a fairly good job of illustrating some aspect of Sigmar's character, or provides some sort of instructional moral lesson. This makes it easier to see why this sort of book might appear in the Empire, and also provides opportunities to refer to the book in the course of play. It also does a good job of paying attention to the most significant events that are mentioned in the Warhammer games. The Battle of Black Fire Pass is given particular attention, and enough is shown of Sigmar's shrewd tactics in uniting the Human tribes of the Empire to make it seem plausible that he would be able to create a united- if not always unified- empire out of the tribes of the Old World.

The Bad: The writing within The Life of Sigmar varies somewhat in quality. At times, a proper mythical tone is maintained, particularly when describing Big Events and mighty actions. During these periods, it's easy to believe that you really are reading a book of myths published in the Empire and drawing on thousand year-old sources. However, there are a number of times- particularly during dialogue between Sigmar and his cohorts- when the writing sounds jarringly modern, more like something lifted out of one of Black Library's Warhammer pulp novels, and less like an ancient religious text. I imagine that the publishers wanted to avoid putting off potential readers who might be turned away by too much heavy-sounding prose and weird, archaic words. Instead, I found myself distracted by the anachronistically modern dialogue (particularly, for some reason, a Dwarven king using the word 'galvanize'). Moments like this really intruded on the atmosphere for me. Myths should read like myths.

Second, there are some stories in the book that are either under-realized or drawn out far too long. It's reasonable to spend a good deal of time on Black Fire Pass, a watershed event in the history of the Empire. But while most of the major events in Sigmar's life are given a good going over, his receipt of the hammer Ghal Maraz from King Ironbeard is reduced to a single line at the end of the chapter about Sigmar rescuing the king from Orcish captors. Not nearly enough is made of the introduction into the story of one of the most important pieces of Sigmarite iconography in the game- not to mention the namesake of the Warhammer world itself!

Another disappointing story in the book is the encounter between Sigmar and the necromancer Nagash. Weighing in at slightly less than 4 pages of text, this story is so woefully underdeveloped that one has to wonder why it was included at all. After three pages of introduction- much of it relating to Sigmar's acquisition of the Crown of Sorcery- the actual confrontation between Nagash and Sigmar occurs in two sentences- neither of them particularly long or descriptive. Here's a summary: Nagash tries to take the crown of sorcery. Sigmar hits him with his hammer. Nagash flees. Actually, I'm not sure that it can be called a summary, since it contains all the information in the story, and is nearly as long.

Overall: Though marred by a couple of weak stories and occasional tone problems, The Life of Sigmar does a great job of fleshing out the myths and background of the Old World. The book itself is a neat little physical artifact that you can easily imagine sitting in the pack of a WFRP player character, and the stories and myths that it contains will enable enterprising players and GMs to spike their in-game dialogue with references to the shared mythical heritage of the citizens of the Empire. Overall, a solid addition to the flavor and tone of the Warhammer world, and quite intriguing for gamers interested in the Empire.

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