On Ratmen

This image is from the front of 'Redwall' and can be located at Redwall armies in HotT

We have visited the notion of ratmen from time to time in our discussions about Fantasy armies. Most of the discussions have centred on literary precedents and what they would represent as an army concept. First of all there is a very linear and singular view of ratmen as evil. This is obviously partly due to the fact that the main representation of them is in the Warhammer world where they are offshoots of Chaos. Views of the origins of chaos and what they would mean for our gaming experience can be found here. How these views relate to Games Workshop's version of Chaos should be found by looking here.

These ideas reflect just how I feel about GW's version of Chaos as a whole. As far as their view of ratmen or the Skaven are, well I like the Skaven in GW's Warhammer World. If I was playing that game I would definitely enjoy playing this race. The GW conceptualisation of Skaven just seems very linear and predictable to really satisfy me in the long term. Besides I don't think I want to be dependent on a multi-national for my gaming concepts I would prefer to work on my own. After all that’s what frothing is all about. What follows is a review of the concept of the ratmen from what I have gleaned online. I will then outline in general terms the range of ways that I feel various populations of ratmen/Skaven and Vermen could be portrayed. Later I will eventually develop full blown concepts for the ratmen in our Fantasy Warriors context.

The 'ratrace'
Beginning with an obvious point, but one that really strikes at the heart of the issue is the term the 'ratrace'. This term is the epitome of what ratmen seems to be associated with. The 'ratrace' clearly points to the dark side of modernity, industrialism and urbanity. It is a term, which can easily be related to the industrial proletariat living in the squalor and filth to which they have been consigned. In this sense then we are looking at a race which has been dehumanised by the process of history, impoverished and exposed to the worst conditions imaginable. It depends on your view of industrialism whether you will see them as heroes or demons.

A good example of this sort of thinking is contained in the poem 'The Rat Men.' by Larry Leonard where the ratmen are seen as the darker side of human society. Already by thinking on this concept you can see that it is simply a matter of choice and representation whether or not they are evil or neutral. In this light the ratmen are very much the antithesis of civilisation growing ever stronger as civilisation itself grows; the perfect post-modern heroes.

Ratmen - apocalypse and disease
Following closely on the heels of the perspective of ratmen always being associated with the darker side of human civilisation is the view of ratmen and their association with the apocalypse. This is a core tenet of the view of GW in the Warhammer world and serves to intensify the sense of evil that they represent. Yet this is not necessary. The apocalyptic vision of the ratmen could be used to interpret their role in any war game as the result of civilisation gone wrong. If it is put this way the ratmen then appear as not inherently evil but rather the victims of the excesses of the other races. Suffering not through persecution but through indifference. It is not hard to see how pollution and disease traditionally associated with the evil nature of the ratmen could be seen as manifestations of the waste of human society.

Take Camus' "The Plague" (Penguin Books, London. 1960) in this novel rats die of the disease before it starts affecting the human population of a small French town. The association of rats with the transmission of the plague historically would also be a good source of representations for anyone thinking of building a narrative for their particular breed of ratmen. Yet disease especially infectious disease only spreads when the conditions are right: high population concentrations, poor nutrition and poor sanitation. Put simply late agricultural and early industrial city populations always suffer the ravages of infectious disease. Therefore if you are going to have this view of ratmen then you will have to ensure that you have them placed under such conditions. Many conceptualisations of ratmen are of course placed within these contexts but the resulting social configurations do not match. More about that later.

Ratmen - versatility
One of the less associated terms is versatility. Rats can live almost anywhere and this means that if you are going to build a picture of ratmen which in some ways resemble their animal counterparts there should be a huge range of possibilities to consider. They should not simply be portrayed in terms of their relationship to urban and industrialising locations. There should be a huge range of ratmen civilisations some not suffering the ravages of disease to the same extent as others. Rural ratmen living in sparsely populated areas would certainly be less likely to suffer from infectious diseases and equally there is no reason why there might not be nomadic races of ratmen. The terms evil and good should apply to the many ranges of ratmen civilisations in a variable way, these terms themselves should be a product of the context in which they exist. There is no reason why they should form different colonies with different rules of prestige and social structures.

To some extent others have recognised this potential although it has to be said that most representations on a review of the web have been of the negative and loathed variety.

Ratmen on the Web
Looking through the web there are a huge number of references to ratmen. Without doubt most useful is the Source book "Warrens of the Ratmen" for the Ad&D third edition. This is a great source book and would serve anyone well who wants to think about producing a ratmen culture.

I have a copy of this sourcebook, which focuses on the 'Slitheren' (ratmen) of The Mourning Marshes and covers many of the social aspects of the clans to be found in this area. According to this book there are 12 clans: The Diseased, Black Pelts, Brown Gorgers, Daywalkers, Foamers, Forge Crawlers, Red Witches, Stalkers, Storm Chasers, Stricken, Unseeing, and White Wraiths. These twelve clans give the Slitheren of the Mourning Marshes a neat range of variability. Each clan varies according to:

  • warren structure, this gives details of the typical landscape they inhabit and the sorts of structures they live in
  • caste structure that is whether or not they have a priesthood, military, workers or shock troops.
  • Lifestyle, these accounts focus on the variations in social habits like do the members of the clan wear jewellery? Do they have an internal communal structure? Amongst other things.
  • Prestige, this is a very important variable and one which could be used to give different units of a force very different character on the battlefield. Prestige is about what motivates the slitheren to achieve? For example to become a member of the military of the Diseased the aspiring slitheren must meet very harsh requirements and face death on failure to satisfy these requirements, therefore only the most brutal members of the clan ever make it into the military. This is one of the most useful variables for giving character to any army.
  • Worship, who do they worship and what form does this worship take? The White Wraiths for example worship the memory of Gulaben, Lady of the Winds and their rituals involve the conjuration of winds and storms.
  • Rituals, what form does their basic rituals take? How is it related to the form of worship? If you are thinking of building a ratmen society and army list this could be very useful in terms of the way in which magic rituals are interpreted and the shape such magic should take on the battlefield. The idea is to give your army concepts some flavour and depth to help improve game play. The biggest weakness of depending on others like Games Workshop to do your conceptualisation for you it is that you lose a sense of ownership of your horde.
  • Relations with others. The last thing to be discussed in relation to each of the twelve clans is how they relate to each other. This gives a sense of who would avoid who and who would ally with whom. It would be stupid to think that all versions of ratmen would get along together and having inter-factional competition would really give the whole ideas of ratmen some flavour.

As you can see just by buying a sourcebook like the Warrens of the Ratmen one can glean lots of useful information. There is definitely a clear argument here for crossing the genre of wargaming with sources within roleplaying.

Elsewhere on the web in the Dark Age roleplaying game the following description can be found:

"Looking like giant, humanoid rats, ratmen live in conditions similar to their smaller brethren. Rejected by all other societies and unable to get a firm start on their own, ratmen live off of the wastes of populous human cities. Dwelling in sewers, catacombs, and abandoned buildings, ratmen are the poorest, most filthy of creatures. They are bred to a life of begging and thievery, and are useful for little other than their fine crossbows, which they use in burglary anyway.

Ratmen hate their status and the humans who will not let them be a part of their world. However, it is the ratmen who are most human of all the non-humans in Dark Age. They are bitter race indeed, but they are also capable of compassion and understanding if need be. Ratmen are thieves, but they will not stand for outright violence upon those who cannot defend themselves. Thus, they are often the vigilantes in a city, and this is a kindness which goes forever unrewarded.

Ratmen do not have much of ruling body, nor do they pay heed to the human governments they feed off of. Ties of friendship and community alone bind them together. They may pay heed to a master thief, who may be ratman or human, but this is only for purposes of organising crime, not organising a society.

Cities with ratman "infestations" have difficulty rooting out these parasites, for the ratmen are resourceful and can always find a new crack or crevice in which to hide out. When it comes down to outright war, legions of troopers sent into the ratmen 's dank abode often never return, having encountered elaborate traps, poison gas, or deadly monsters.

Ratmen are prone to ill health, and only live for about 70 years or so."
(Links: http://www.core.binghamton.edu/~karidian/DarkAge/ http://www.core.binghamton.edu/~karidian/DarkAge/monso-z.htm)

In this discussion the typical urban shunned nature of the ratmen is given but also that they perform other functions such as acting like vigilantes. In other words the idea of ratmen should have some variation, ways to do this involve thinking about how they are shunned by others, but all along thinking of them as having key points of variation along particular physical, social and psychological aspects. What will follow at some stage in the future will be more details on how I have attempted to do this for our emerging wargaming campaign using a variant of the old Fantasy Warriors rules.

-FrotherBaz 08/31/2003

Back to Main page