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The Tiger Roars 

On Writing “Fluff”
I often get e-mails asking me for advice on writing “fluff,” or background material, for Do-It-Yourself (DIY) 40K armies. Creative writing of any kind can be a challenge (at least, if you want to write well), and writing fluff is no exception. The good news is that you don’t have to be a best-selling author to come up with halfway decent fluff. Here are five suggestions.

1. Keep it short and sweet
Inspired by the guys at Games Workshop, 40K players often write pages and pages of detailed backstories, complete with dialogue, as if they’re doing their own version of The Iliad. A lot of gamers like this approach, but every time I see this, my eyes glaze over. It’s the same reaction I get when someone tells me long, complicated stories about their last vacation or a dream they had the other night. Is there anything more boring? I think not.

To keep your fluff short and only include “the good stuff,” I suggest that when you write, you limit yourself to briefly (and “briefly” is the key word) answering the following questions based around the time-tested journalistic formula of “Who, What, When, Where, and How”:

  • Who founded your army? Who is their current leader? Who are their exceptional characters?
  • Where in the galaxy is the army located? Do they have a permanent base or do they move around? 
  • When was the army established? This mostly pertains to Space Marines, but it can be significant for other armies, too. 
  • When did major events happen to them? Limit yourself to two or three major events in your army’s history. 
  • What’s nearby them—a particular star/planet/civilization?
  • What are the army’s goals? Are they defending a certain area? Avenging an ancient wrong? Conquering worlds in the name of a leader? Trying to get rich by raiding settlements?
  • Whom are their enemies and allies? Do they have a particular foe they’ve fought against several times? Do they have other armies they usually work with?
  • How does your army like to fight? At long range with lots of heavy weapons? At short range with basic weapons? Close combat? Mechanized? Infantry-heavy? To be sure, this aspect is greatly influenced by the very army itself (it’s hard to build a Tau army that relies on close combat), but is there something distinctive about your army’s fighting style?
“Why” is the follow-up to “Who What, When, Where, and How.” You say your Space Marine chapter is based on a jungle-covered deathworld: why are they there and not somewhere else? You say that they were founded from the Imperial Fists—why that geneseed? Your answers don’t need to be (and shouldn’t be) in the form of essays, but you need to have them. 

Once you’ve answered “Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why,” you’ll find that you’re most—if not all—the way done writing interesting, relevant fluff without tedious details that add nothing of value to someone who wants to know about your army.

2. Keep it real
One must take with a whole shaker of salt any admonition to “keep it real” concerning a game in which superpowered humans battle aliens in the far future (more salt—perhaps an entire salt lick, suitable for large herds of livestock—must be taken when the guy advising one to “keep it real” plays female Space Marines and Lizardmen intent on destroying the universe). 

Despite the fact that the setting and situations of the Warhammer 40K game are completely unreal, one should nevertheless try to keep one’s fluff believable within the context of the game. If you say that your Space Marines are faster than speeding bullets, are stronger than locomotives, and can leap tall buildings in single bounds (without the aid of jump packs), you shouldn’t expect other players to take your fluff too seriously. Likewise, you probably shouldn’t claim that your Chapter Master is the actual son of the Emperor, that your army defeated three Hive Fleets at once without losing a single guy, or that your psyker is so powerful that he could, if he wanted to, close up the Eye of Terror and seal off the forces of Chaos from the material universe. 

(If you are going to break one or more tenets of the 40K universe—that, for example, your chapter has female Space Marines—you need to briefly provide some explanation as to how and why your particular army can do what heretofore no army has ever done. On a side note, you’ll also need to develop a thick skin to withstand criticism from hard-core fluff purists, a.k.a. “fluff-Nazis,” who dislike any deviation from the background that Games Workshop has presented.)

In addition to making your army seem more believable, “keeping it real” also works to make them more interesting. An army that never knows defeat, led by a character who is all-good and has no flaws, is boring. Everyone (except Rocky Marciano) lost at least one fight in their lives, and so, too, should your army. Everyone (even Michael Jordan) makes mistakes; everyone (even Ghandi) has done bad things: your characters should have failings, too. 

3. Keep it going
Your army’s background is really just a starting point: as you play games, incorporate the more significant ones into your army’s fluff. As your army changes—adding new units, trying out new tactics—work those into your fluff as well. 

For example, a few years ago, my friend Pat and I fought a very long campaign called the Blood Deserts of Auros IX. My Fighting Tigers narrowly lost the campaign, and I have included that in their backstory. In response to that defeat and the heavy losses they suffered, my army has undergone a number of changes, including adding a substantial number of Scouts to bulk up their forces. Even more recently, one of their leaders, Shamshir Talatra, was removed from office and an interim leader, Chandramatie Bahl, has taken his place.

See what I mean about keeping your fluff going? By using real games and real changes you make to the army as inspiration, your fluff grows and seems more authentic, more “real.”

4. Keep it in sync
That is, pay attention to what Games Workshop is doing with their overall storyline for the Warhammer 40K universe and make your army part of it as you please. In the last few years, Games Workshop has run global campaigns, like the Third War for Armageddon and the Eye of Terror: even if you don’t participate in these events, you can reference them to ground your army in the 40K universe (“We would have been at Cadia to fight Abaddon and the Black Legion during the 13th Black Crusade, but we had to fight off some Orks first!”).  

5. Keep it flexible
Avoid the temptation to detail every little bit of your army’s background. Better to leave some parts vague so as to allow yourself plenty of freedom to go back and elaborate on them later rather than have to scrap what you painstakingly created and wrote. Also, you never know when Games Workshop is going to come along and revise or expand on the 40K background, which could negatively affect your army’s fluff. Actual example: I know a fellow who wrote out an extensive backstory for his Raven Guard army, none of which meshed with what GW later wrote when they finally got around to “officially” fleshing out the Raven Guard. All that work—very nice work, by the way—that he had done? Out the window. Don’t let that happen to you.

So there’s my advice to you on how to write fluff. For some examples of my own work, which uses these suggestions, check out the backstories for my armies:

Posted January 2007 


Fighting Tigers:
Codex <> Tactics <> Gallery <> Allies and Enemies <> Tales of the Tigers

Other Pages:
Main <> What's New <> Site Index <> The Tiger Roars <> Themed Army Ideas
Events and Battle Reports <> Campaigns <> Terrain <> FAQ <> Beyond the Jungle