Most fantasy settings tend to be built of a standardized template. You have your humans, elves and dwarfs in the good guys corner, and then your orcs, goblins and undead in the bad guy corner. These “classic” races are almost always represented, and many games do not offer much beyond them. I’ve been running a series based on rattling these shackles since 2008 and I have barely scratched the surface. That said, every once in a while someone out there has a sheer stroke of brilliance and creates something strikingly unique. A fictional race that is not only undeniably cool looking, interesting and weird but also completely original and not recycled from another setting.
For Warhammer Fantasy this race are the Fimir: the bad-ass, one-eyed mist monsters:
Fimir live in bogs and swamps of the Old World. They loathe sunlight so they rely on magical mists to hide and shade their camps, and their armies when they march to war. They have a single large eye in the middle of their head, beak-like snouts, mouths full of sharp fangs and long barbed tails. They are neither reptilian nor goblinoid but they are said to have demonic blood in them which makes them innately magical and attuned to their mists.
Their society is matriarchal and divided into a strict caste system. The rulers are powerful female Mages known as Meargh, aided by Dirach, the horned priestly caste which communes with demons and more mundane magic. Below them are the Fianna – the noble born Fimir blessed with dagger like, razor sharp blade growths on their tails. They get first dibs on food, get access to best armors and equipment and tend to grow to the largest size. They command squads of rank and file Fimm Warriors whose tails culminate in barbed clubs and whose main role is to protect the tribe. The lowest caste are Shearl – the permanently hunched over workers with smooth tails and subservient attitude.
The interesting thing about them is that their creators (Graeme Davis, Jes Goodwin and Tony Ackland) did something few fantasy creators ever do anymore: they went back to the original sources. Instead of cribbing of Tolkien, or copy-pasting from Gyrax they based their concept on genuine folklore and mythology. The Fimir are not yet another species of Orks or Ork like creatures. They are not a re-interpretation of Kobolds other reptilian race. They are their own unique thing. In fact, this was the specific design goal: to create something unique to Warhammer.
At the time, Games Workshop (and thus the Warhammer franchise) was owned by Bryan Ansell, who has been described by various sources as a tad eccentric and opinionated miniature hobby business veteran. Ansell intended to turn his acquisition into profitable business venture, and so he introduced many changes. These included organizational changes such as moving the company office out of the expensive London venue to Nottingham, and creative changes involving focus on branding and marketability of the firms properties. Not everyone shared his vision for the company. In fact, Ian Marsh became so disgruntled he arranged the table of contents of
Ansell was instrumental in creation of Fimir by way of Zoats.
His ambition was to build Warhammer up into a recognizable, and marketable brand name rather than just one of many fantasy settings that existed on peripheries of D&D. He wanted to capitalize on Warhammer’s distinctive feel, and make it memorable and instantly recognizable. To properly market that uniqueness he needed an original monster that could be put on book covers and merchandise. Something akin to the Beholder: a creature that is unmistakable D&D trademark. And so, he came up with Zoats: a centaur like space lizards heavily inspired by of Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories. They looked like this:
Most Games Workshop designers hated his idea with a passion. Zoats were goofy, awkward and didn’t really fit with the dark fantasy theme of the setting. Ansell was adamant about putting them in, unless someone could come up with a better idea. Graeme Davis along with Jes Goodwin and Tony Ackland teamed up to rescue Warhammer from the four legged goofball lizards by creating more Warhammer worthy monster.
Back in 98 Davis reminisced about the design process on rec.games.miniatures.warhammer and Google was nice enough to archive those emails for posterity:
It all started when Bryan Ansell decided that WFRP should introduce a new race to the WH world – “to be as distinctive of Warhammer as the Broo are of Runequest” were his exact words if memory serves – and to this end he came up with the Zoats, which everyone hated, but which he said would have to go in if no-one could come up with anything better. And he *did* own the company, so we took the threat seriously. So as I say, Jes and I came up with the concept for Fimir, Jes did the designs and I did the culture and game stats – and in the end, both Zoats and Fimir ended up in WFRP, and nobody much cares for either race.
In a more recent (2013) interview with Realm of Chaos 80’s blog Tony Ackland corroborated Davis’ story:
Graeme Davis had been tasked with creating a new race. So between us we came up with the Fimir He working on the text and me on the visuals. The starting point was a book cover that Graene found featuring a Fomorian as depicted by Alan Lee. I mutated the image and Graeme shortened the name and changed the vowels. Not the most original thing either of us did.
Who were the Fomorians? To make a long story short, they were the Celtic version of the Titans: primordial beings older than the gods themselves, who represented the unbridled force of nature.
I was able to reach Graeme Davis via email listed on his blog and asked him directly about his inspiration. He was kind enough to shoot me a message back, and he even remembered the title of the book mentioned by Ackland:
The concept of the Fimir was based on the Fomorians from Irish folklore: they are a barbarous and cruel race (much like Orcs in that respect) who were finally defeated by the more civilized Tuatha De Danann. Their most famous king, Balor of the Evil Eye, had one eye, so I applied that to the whole race. (…)
The appearance of the Fimir was based on a book cover drawn by Alan Lee for “Irish Folk and Fairy Tales, vol. 2” by Michael Scott. I showed the image to Jes Goodwin when we were discussing the Fimir for general inspiration, but I was surprised how literally he copied it.
Michael Scott’s book has been out of print for quite some time, though you can still find used copies online here and there. The cover can actually be seen on the author’s official website but it is pretty obvious it is not the right picture. The Fimir protoplast’s likeness is actually on the back cover of that volume.
Davis told me this is not in fact the image from his book, though because it was painted by the same artist it does have many similarities. Unfortunately he no longer had the book, and neither of us could locate the correct Fomorian painting so the above will have to do. You will just have to use your imagination. The overall shape of the head is similar and you can almost see how even this version could be iteratively mutated into the distinctive Fimir beak.
Davis later added:
Another source of inspiration (…) was palaeontology. I decided to give the Fimir a tail attack, which is why the Fimm warriors have a mace-like tail inspired by the Ankylosaurus. In the nobles, of course, this is a halberd-like blade instead of a mace.
As far as RPG monsters go, this is a solid pedigree: part primordial fey folk, part dinosaur, part daemon. The Fimir are as firmly tied to folklore and mythology as Orcs, Dwarfs and Elves (by way of Tolkien). They are rooted in a rich oral tradition of ages past, unlike Beholders, Owlbears and Rust Monsters who can trace their origins to a Hong Kong toy factory. More than that, they tap into something primal – swamps and mists are innately mysterious, uncomfortable and eerie (to the point where mist monsters can almost claim to have their own horror genre), but that’s where the Fimir thrive. And yet, they never made it big. They did not catch on, and were subsequently phased out from the Games Workshop lineup.
They did become a fan favorite, fondly remembered by many a Game Master and treasured by collectors. But they were not the marketing slam dunk Ansell hoped for. Neither were Zoats for that matter. Even though both races were quietly omitted from future bestiaries, they never fully disappeared. It seems that nothing in the Games Workshop ecosystem ever dies permanently – everything that was ever published has a tendency to eventually become re-introduced into the cannon in one shape or another. Fimir, have been cropping up in the lore for decades though usually on the peripheries of the Warhammer universe. Whenever their memory would start to fade away, some author would re-insert them into a spell description, magic item fluff or some unimportant background mini-story.
What went wrong? How could a race so awesome and so unique turn out to be a complete dud?
Davis thinks that the reasons for their lack of success were mostly economical:
The popularisation of Fimir wasn’t helped by a communications foul-up when Nick Bibby took over making the miniatures from Jes – Nick made them all Ogre-sized, compared to Jes’ and my idea that they should be Orc sized. So we had big, expensive miniatures with low game stats, and nobody bought them.
When asked why the stat lines were never corrected, Davis clarified that the miniature designs were altered after the stats were already published in the rulebooks:
I wrote game stats for an Orc-sized creature, and that was the size of Jes’ prototype miniature, but after the game stats had been published the miniatures became Ogre-sized. The result was that the minis had very low abilities compared to the cost of the miniatures, which made them bad value for money. So they never caught on in Warhammer Fantasy Battle, although they did remain popular in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer fiction.
I was able to locate a picture of the original prototype miniature sculpted by Jess Goowin which looks like this:
Goodwin’s model was designed to be mounted on the 25x25mm square base. For comparison, here is the official miniature line as sculpted by Nick Bibby mounted on 40x40mm bases:
In WFB the standard base size for humans, elves, dwarfs and other races is 20x20mm. Larger models such as Orks are mounted on 25x25mm bases which have the same frontage as the mounted cavalry 25x50mm bases. The 40x40mm base size is rare and limited to monsters (Dragons, Hydras, Manticores etc..), animal swarms and monstrous infantry such as Ogres. When lined up against a block of standard infantry, a model on the 40mm base can attach, or be attacked by at least 4 enemy models (2 in direct base contact and two on diagonal) leveling the playing field and making the combat fair for both sides. Monsters who use the 40mm bases typically have beefy stat lines designed for fighting against multiple opponents at the same time. Fimir did not. Their characteristics were tailored for a much smaller creature. The models sculpted by Nick Bibby presented to wide of a frontage and would be easily overwhelmed, even if fielded in large numbers, giving them little tactical value. Not to mention that in the late 80’s Games Workshop hasn’t yet perfected the art of casting inexpensive plastic models. Fimir were expensive
resin metal casts sold one per blister (as opposed to 3-5 per blister for non-monstrous size models) making them exuberantly costly to collect.
For competitive WFB players they were more than useless: they were a literal waste of money. The only people who would bought them would were collectors or hobbyists more interested in painting and diorama design than actual tabletop gaming. Fimir were relegated to be display case material rather than a viable battle force.
Today WFB and Warhammer 40k are the core of Games Workshop business model, but that was not necessarily the case in the 80’s. The Warhammer Fantasy RPG was still a big part of their lineup, and Fimir could have potentially survived as a WFRP-only monster. They didn’t. While they appeared in occasional adventure modules and licensed stories, they were never a major focus and quickly faded into obscurity.
WFRP was probably the Role Playing setting I have played the most as a kid, but I never recall anyone using them. I’m not talking about miniatures, because my gaming group was composed of full-on RPG hipsters who scoffed at dungeon grids and random encounter tables. We hardly rolled any dice and we played WFRP as if it was a diceless storytelling system. There wasn’t any economical or mechanical reason for us not to use the Fimir (we would fudge rolls and mostly ignore stat lines in the name of fun anyway) but we never did. In fact, even though I have always been fond of these little buggers, I never actually considered putting any Fimir in the awful scenarios I designed when it was my turn to GM a session. I was never really comfortable running them in my adventures.
There is something about Fimir I have neglected to tell you.
It is something neither I nor anyone else one in my gaming group was really comfortable with. A quirk in their design that takes them from being creepy in a fun and engaging way, to being creepy in real life…
You see, the Meargh (Fimir hag-queens) are their only females. For some unfathomable, unexplained and inexplicable reason they are always born sterile and unable to reproduce. The lore does not provide any context or a back story for this. It just states it as a fact. Where do baby Fimir come from, you ask? Well… It’s actually better if you don’t know, but for the sake of this article, let me explain. According to the original WFRP lore they… uh… abduct human women.
Yes, there is no two ways about it: Fimir are genuine rape monsters. They are fucked up sexual parasites whose continual existence depends on forcefully breeding with unwilling women of another race. And if that doesn’t rub you the wrong way, then F.A.T.A.L. RPG might actually be right up your alley.
The question is: why were they designed this way? Just to be edgy? Just because dark fantasy and mature themes were in back then? Tony Ackland has been quoted to jokingly write it off as just just that:
When I asked about where the idea of kidnapping and ritualistic rape as a method of reproduction came from Tony replied “I think that was Graeme in one of his dark moods, but I can’t be sure.”
When I asked Davis about it, he did not defend hid choices. In fact he regrets writing the reproductive lore the way he did. If he could do it all over again, he would have done it differently. But it did not come from malicious place.
If you have ever spent any time reading folklore and legends you might have noticed that there are many supernatural creatures who reproduce in unorthodox ways. For example, in some traditions fey folk are known to kidnap infants and replace them with “changelings”. Davis wanted to deeply root the Fimir in mythology and some of that fey-folk weirdness inadvertently seeped into his writing:
The most controversial aspect of the Fimir, their need to kidnap human women for breeding, came from an Orkney creature called a kunal-trow, which is probably a distorted folk-memory of troll-myths brought to those islands by the Vikings. When I wrote the description of the Fimir, I didn’t give this feature enough though, as I now realize; at the time it somehow never occurred to me that the legends were talking about kidnapping and rape. It should have, and I regret this.
The alternate spelling of Trow is Drow. Yes, this is the same matriarchal fey species that inspired the lore for the infamous D&D dark elves, which arguably fared much better than the Fimir. Back when people were making up these critters to scare their children into obedience they didn’t really have these granular taxonomies we Role Players love. A Trow is a troll, a goblin, an elf and few other things as well. That’s just how faeries work in real life.
The point is that Davis was therefore working of the same cultural templates as all the other pioneers of Fantasy RPG. Perhaps his mistake was staying too close to the source:
I had been reading a lot of folklore and faerie lore, and I liked the idea of a small caste of witch-queens ruling the Fimir. As I said above, I borrowed the abduction motif (very common in folklore, especially in British and Irish faerie lore) without really thinking through the implications. What I was really trying to do, I think, was to create a new race that, despite its uniqueness, still had a strong psychological resonance and feeling of being “right” because it was based on so many elements and archetypes from myth and folklore.
You know what? I get that. I know where he is coming from. That feeling of “rightness” does exist. This is why we have a lot of deeply established tropes, archetypes and story arcs. Because they feel deeper and more natural. Because they tap into our cultural heritage, and are built on familiar concepts. Unfortunately not all tropes are positive, or worth perpetuating. Using mythology as the source of inspiration does not excuse perpetuating rape culture in fantasy fiction. Davis acknowledges that he made a mistake, and ultimately the Fimir paid the price for it. It drove them to a virtual extinction.
I think that their rape monster nature was precisely what sabotaged their chances to become signature Warhammer mascots. It was not their suboptimal tabletop performance, but the fact they were a PR disaster waiting to happen. They were the exact opposite of the kind of monster you would want to use in branding a marketable product. TV Tropes suggests that perhaps this was by design, arguing that the Fimir lore is an example of Writer Revolt in response to Executive Meddling by Ansel. But that conjecture is not supported by statements made by Ackland and my conversations with Davis. They both frame it as a simple lapse of judgement that was not recognized as such until it was too late.
I have always loved Fimir for their primordial fey-folk mist-dinosaur look and feel, but was never comfortable with their lore. I never pitted them against my players because other Warhammer antagonists always seemed more fun, characterful and free of controversial baggage (though not perfect). You can throw Orks, Skaven or Chaos cultists against the players, and it is going to be all fun and mayhem. Fimir however have this air of uneasiness about them. Their reproductive lore is something you are best to ignore or rewrite yourself, especially if playing in a mixed company. But at that point it is just easier to use another monster.
That said, fantasy creature lore does not have to be set in stone. It can be rewritten and retconned to remove any and all unwanted baggage. It wouldn’t be the first time nor the last time. Fimir desperately need a figurative “facelift” and it seems that this is exactly what they are getting. Games Workshop has recently reintroduced them into the game lore by including a Dirach sorcerer as a bound monster with beefed up stats and powers in the Storm of Magic expansion for WFB. Around the same time the GW affiliated specialist-miniature-kit maker, Forge World, started selling Fimir Warrior kits. I do not have the expansion, but it appears that their revised lore emphasizes their fall from grace with the Chaos gods and wisely keeps details of their reproductive cycle completely on the down low.
You could say the Fimir are coming back. Historically, creatures on 40mm bases never actually got their own army books, but ever since Ogre Kingdoms release this rule became null and void. Still, chances for a dedicated Fimir army seems slim, but I’m glad they are at least making an official cameo. Warhammer fans seem to have nothing but love for these twisted, disturbing beasts. Even with the unsavory bits of lore, they remain one of the most original and most fascinating fantasy antagonists both within the Warhammer setting as well as outside of it. The recent revival is probably not the last you have seen of them.