So to start off our explanation of Warhammer Fantasy, we should start with what kind of world we are talking about here. Well to start, the Warhammer Universe is ‘speculative fiction’, specifically ‘Fantasy’. Spec-Fic is a broad term that refers to fiction genres that use the most imagination. Fantasy is one type of speculative fiction, usually one that uses magic or supernatural themes as a central part of the storyline.
The Warhammer world, the Old World, is further defined as ‘High Fantasy’, as the arcane/supernatural plays a central (as opposed to periphery) role in the stories set within the world.
The Warhammer world, unlike, say, Tolkein’s Middle Earth, is not so much characterised by a stark contrast between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The ‘good’ factions/races/nations in the Warhammer world are to a fault brutal and often cruel. Even the ‘heroes’ of the world are usually deeply bigoted, genocidal or psychotic.
Another interesting element of the Warhammer Fantasy world is the use of dark humour. This is a legacy of the creation of the setting in the 80s, where the setting incorporated more of the bizarre.
Through the Human nation known as the ‘Empire’ , along with the engineers of the race called ‘Dwarfs’, there are also elements of ‘Steam Punk’ technology. With modern inventions (for example tanks) run by steam and present in a fantasy, old technology, setting.
Classical mythology is also evoked, beasts from Pagasi to Chimerae inhabiting the bestiaries of the various nations, often being ridden into battle. Importantly, the Old World also imitates real world geography, and the cultures/nations clearly evoke real world counter parts. The Empire is a fantasy echo of the Holy Roman Empire. The Bretonians make one think of medieval France and Arthurian legend. The Lizardmen the Aztecs and the Tomb Kings the Egyptians, but that will all be discussed later.
The most obvious comparison to make of course is between Warhammer Fantasy and the world of Tolkein. Indeed few can miss the comparison. The Dwarves, Orcs and High Elves are all very familiar. However it would be a mistake to label the world of Warhammer Fantasy as merely derivative of Tolkein. As you will see, there are subtle and not so subtle differences between the two worlds that make Warhammer unique and valuable in its own right.
Indeed some of the differences have formed the foundation for other franchises. The first to spring to mind is the PC Game ‘Warcraft’ and all of Blizzards subsequent similar releases. Dwarves with guns was a Warhammer thing first.
So to summarise. The world of Warhammer is a dark, high fantasy with a wide range of influences, from previous fantasy lore to history.