The virtues of our hobby: Sparking imagination

Imagination is more important than knowledge.I don’t want you to mistake this concept with my ‘creativity’ article, because they’re different even if there’s some overlap in the overarching concepts. In the case of imagination, I’m talking about the hobby’s ability to spark and nurture a person’s desire to explore imaginary worlds and let their mind run wild. The stories and the art of the rulebooks are a window to new ideas and visions, and they leave a lot of room to fill in the blanks with your own ideas.

How our hobby encouraged my imagination.

Coming off the heels of my last article, in which I explored some of my gaming roots, I’ve been thinking about why I love the Warhammer worlds so much. Since I was a wee lad I’ve had my nose buried in rulebooks, supplements, magazines and eventually websites dedicated to miniatures wargaming and roleplaying games. Through them, I’ve made sense of my life and place within the world. I also came to the understanding that I could escape it for other places and times, if only briefly.

The literature of fantasy and science fiction

Most fictional series or game environments focus on certain characters, settings and factions that represent a certain norm. They build up worlds, histories, pantheons of gods, heroes and cultures. However, the best examples of world-building leave a little room for your imagination to fill in the blanks or allow for unique individuals or groups. This is true from D&D to Warhammer and everything in between. Rarely does any work of fiction set out to cover the entire story and everything surrounding it. Even the ones that are very ambitious in this regard (maybe Star Trek or Tolkien’s works) still leave massive holes in the timeline or even feature odd or out-of-place stories and characters once in a while. The exception proves the rule in fiction as in theoretical mathematics (or something).

A bookshelf with Warhammer novelsWarhammer 40,000 takes world-building to galactic extremes. The timelines are laid out loosely, with the understanding that humanity’s record-keeping skills leave a lot to be desired. Even the Imperium of Man’s dating system has a special check number attached to reflect the estimated accuracy of hard dates. Over the years the system expanded and filled in some areas, while dropping other races, worlds and topics completely. It’s a galaxy in flux, even if you think of the current fluff as a snapshot of an impossibly long timeframe.

In many ways, the folks who write the fiction at Black Library, and in the official game materials, leave a lot of room to do your own thing. The literature often features interesting characters and even entire sub-factions that have no basis in the rules or model line, breathing life and adding depth into the official framework. Want to run an all-female Adeptus Militarum regiment? Do it! Feel like seeing what would happen if an Imperial Fist marine rebelled and joined the Black Legion? Sounds cool.

The Black Library Quick Reads pageLately, I’ve been trying to read some of the Black Library Quick Reads before bed, and I really enjoy these snippets as they give me a lot to think about as I close my eyes before I sleep. If they were just stories about all the usual suspects, they’d be a bit boring. But, perhaps because of the short format, I think these stories explore things that frankly wouldn’t work as well in long-form fiction. Maybe they’re too strange, or the before-and-after would be too boring. In any case, they’re great for the sort of thing I’m talking about here.

How game art affects imagination

Game art, in particular that of miniatures-based games, allows a reader to see the characters as much more than their 3D models. A good artist can do things in 2D that add a sense of context, dynamism, and sometimes just plain bizarre touches that really help us to think about our little models as so much more.

Cover art from the Rogue Trader wargameThe early works of John Blanche offered a counter-point to the tight concept sketches of Jes Goodwin, and I appreciated them both for different reasons. Jes sketched concepts that translated beautifully to the models themselves, but it was Blanche and some of his colleagues that ultimately shaped my ideas of what horrors the galaxy could hold. Shapes twisted, the laws of physics seemed to fade, and madness was the standard even for the ostensibly heroic factions. The lines between the organic and mechanical were never clear, and the most over-the-top images seemed to fall right into place. Warhammer fit right into heavy metal and punk counter-cultures back in the early days. After seeing art like that, it became a lot easier to imagine the truly bizarre creations of chaos, and it opened my mind to ideas that didn’t seem to fit into the norms. As a young person, this world was a safe-haven in an environment that was all too real and unkind to the unusual. My imagination expanded beyond physical constraints and the shapes and faces I knew, and opened a hunger for fantasy and science fiction that would never leave me. The impossible is so much more fun.

I spent literal hours staring at some of the fantastic art from the Rogue Trader and 2nd Edition 40K eras. Even though so much of it seems corny or outdated to me now, it holds a prized place in my memory and clicking through digital scans of those pages brings me right back to that sense of wonder. I was probably too young to be looking at a lot of that material, but I’m glad I had older brothers and parents that seemed either okay with it or unaware that it was happening.

In summary

I’m not sure about the science, but I suspect a person’s capacity for imagination is at least partially based on physiology. It’s very possible I would still have a vivid imagination without my upbringing and the hobby being a part of it. But, I can’t really say for sure. What I do know is that these worlds allowed me to expand my mind during my formative years, and I credit this hobby with giving me lots of avenues to explore. Through them, I’ve been able to reconcile my personal oddities and deal with a world that all-too-often favors a particular brand of normal. This cannot possibly be a bad thing, and I count our hobby’s capacity to stoke the fires of imagination amongst its most endearing qualities. How about you? What gets your imagination going? Was it hobby stuff? Novels? Film? Or maybe you got into it later in life?