Insider 3-13-2012

It’s hard to develop an immediate fondness for a person whose most defining trait is expertise in inflicting pain. Despite this, I have become increasingly attached to Morghoul. He is one of our most fascinating skorne characters, and one who perfectly demonstrates the perversely fascinating and unsettling nature of skorne culture.

As our oldest fans know, the skorne first appeared as an integral part of The Witchfire Trilogy, the first publications by Privateer Press and also an introductory glimpse of the Iron Kingdoms. At this point, we still had a lot of work to do to flesh out western Immoren, let alone the skorne race, history, and culture. That would come later, but Matt Wilson already had a clear vision for this race. One of the first aspects of skorne civilization readers learned about was the paingiver caste. Torture was clearly a vital part of their society, and the paingivers created a terrifying and memorable first impression when Vinter Raelthorne IV made his return from the desert wastes alongside an army of cruelly effective warriors.

While working on HORDES: Primal, we had the paingivers much in mind, and Morghoul became this caste’s embodiment and icon. There was much to wrestle with in the course of seeing Morghoul realized as a complex character. His story was inextricably bound with our exploration of what defined the skorne themselves, as well as their relationship with this ex-Cygnaran king who had become their Conqueror. Linking Morghoul strongly to Vinter seemed natural given the chaos and bloodshed required during the unification of the Skorne Empire. For a paranoid king like Vinter, having access to a caste of paingivers to ensure the loyalty and submission of his subjects must have been a dream come true! How different might Cygnar’s history have been if he’d had access to such experts during his reign?

Writing Morghoul’s initial entry and developing his backstory was not easy. This was one of the more difficult entries to get right in Primal, and it went back and forth many times between me and Jason Soles. At first, I failed to make him scary enough—I was too caught up in dry historical facts. It all came together when we talked about Morghoul becoming the Walking Death below Halaak, conducting a terror campaign against those who had defied the Reborn and forcing the bloody Second Unification. What solidified the master tormentor in my mind was not simply the number of people he took down, but the “month-long festival of agony” Morghoul conducted in the capital. This was not some pragmatic act of justice. It was a twisted act of political performance art that represented Morghoul’s mastery of excruciation. To the paingivers, this was a masterpiece, a sublime representation of their craft.

Had he simply rested on his laurels, Morghoul would have remained a paragon of his caste and someone to keep the other skorne in line by the terror of his existence. But he was about to undergo significant evolution and change. As we planned Metamorphosis it became clear that Makeda needed to lead the skorne to reclaim their destiny from Vinter. This created some difficult conundrums, particularly for those characters defined by their loyalty to the Conqueror. As we worked out the plot, we decided the only proper way for things to unfold would be a confrontation putting Magnus under Morghoul’s not-so-delicate ministrations. This would unlock a revelation for both characters that would irrevocably change their individual worldviews. Torture would prove Magnus had been loyal to his master, even as this interrogation shattered that loyalty. Knowing the warcaster had acted in good faith on Vinter’s orders proved to Morghoul that the Conqueror did not have the best interests of the skorne at heart. He saw the Skorne Empire as nothing more than a tool; a fact neither Morghoul nor Makeda could endure.

Morghoul is a cruel visionary and a master of a twisted and horrible art, but at his core he believes in and represents skorne civilization. In facing the reality of Vinter’s betrayal, he took the title of lord assassin and cast aside his previous role as an instrument in someone else’s hand. He became one of the central architects of the new Skorne Empire, a leader of a people freed from the Conqueror’s hidden agendas. One of the interesting elements of Morghoul’s evolution as a character is that while he is an embodiment of certain skorne concepts, he is not really a traditionalist. He has opted to reshape the paingiver caste to become a house in its own right and found a niche for it within the new empire that is at odds with how paingivers functioned before the Conqueror united the skorne. He is not seeking to return to the old ways of internecine warfare between houses but embraces the concept of a unified empire, with his caste as the menacing agents capable of enforcing that unity.

Morghoul is someone who is extremely loyal—not to any single leader, but rather to certain abstract principles. Even as he obeys Supreme Archdomina Makeda, he watches her closely. Should she show signs of abandoning her responsibilities, he will do what he must for the betterment of the empire. Morghoul is perhaps the most dangerous individual in the Army of the Western Reaches, in part because the other skorne leaders take his constancy for granted. They think they understand him, but no one truly knows the thoughts taking place behind his paingiver mask. There are several of them that should be thankful he is occupied fighting their enemies rather than weighing their actions—for now.