It’s a tabletop game that throws players into the heart of fantastical conflicts, but when it comes to Warhammer, there’s often another level to the hobby. So, how exactly can tabletop games support our mental health, and what is it that makes this community a pocket of support?
If you know your Aeldari from your Drukhari, your Loyalists from your Heretics, then you’re probably already familiar with the immersive, tabletop world that is Warhammer. Played with miniature figures, which are lovingly built and painted by players, the games navigate the lore of a highly developed mythos, using dice to determine gameplay outcomes, leading to victory or defeat.
In small local shops, and in huge tournaments hundreds of players strong, games unfold on the table. But beyond these stories, there’s something deeper going on in this community. A sense of identity, unity, and shared passion lays the foundation for a different kind of victory – one against isolation and exclusion. Something that counsellor (and avid Warhammer player) Tom Bulpit identifies with closely.
Tom’s Warhammer story begins aged six or seven, retreating to the attic with his dad to play historical tabletop war games.
“My dad was my best friend growing up,” he says. “My mum was sick, and things at home weren’t great, so the adventure world we created in our attic was the best escape I had, and a chance to just be a kid. That got harder to do after my parents divorced, and I struggled to make friends as I moved between different homes and schools. I managed to find a group of similar geeky guys through after-school clubs, and that’s when I was first introduced to Warhammer, starting with the Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth game.
“Fast forward to Covid-19. We were in full lockdown and my mum, whom by then I hadn’t seen for 10 years, died very suddenly. I fell into a very dark depression, ironically mid-way through my counselling training. I knew that I needed to protect my mental health and find something that would allow me to process the isolation and grief.”
So Tom returned to the hobby that had first brought him that sense of escape all those years ago. He bought a new army to build and paint from scratch. He inhaled the accompanying novels, and got familiar with the extensive set of rules again.
“Getting back into Warhammer 40k gave me the outlet I needed to process, opened up new friendships, and has provided so many opportunities since then. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say Warhammer might have saved my life.”
Katie Foad is a presenter with TableTop Tactics, which produces Warhammer shows on its various online platforms, racking up more than 37 million views on its YouTube channel alone. Katie’s entry into the hobby first began around 10 years ago and, like Tom, she can pinpoint the way it has helped her navigate a way through challenging times.
“My mental health has been something that I have struggled with as long as I can remember,” Katie explains. “On bad days, my heart feels like it’s beating so fast it’ll explode, I feel sick to my stomach and struggle to eat anything, I can cry at a moment’s notice. I do suffer from panic attacks, when it’s especially bad.”
Katie says that she got into Warhammer at a point when her anxiety was at its worst. But painting miniatures did something really important for her mind: it forced her to focus, leaving less room for anxious thoughts.
“It really became a safe haven for me, being able to put all of my energy into creating this tiny thing, that I could be proud of. And the more I got into it, the more comfortable I felt looking into the community.”
It was during lockdown that Katie first began sharing her hobby on Instagram, building up her following to sit at more than 60,000 today. And, in it, she discovered a whole new layer of support.
“It all snowballed very quickly, I wasn’t just welcomed into the community with opened arms, it was more like being wrapped in the most comforting bear hug you could imagine,” Katie says. “Through the encouragement and kindness, my confidence grew. I see myself now, as almost unrecognisable compared to where I was before I started this journey. The impact of both my hobby, and the Warhammer community, has been immeasurable.”
When considering what it may be that makes this particular community so supportive, Katie says she believes there are many hobbyists with a similar story to hers, which creates a culture of empathy. In a TableTop Tactics YouTube video, uploaded on World Mental Health Day 2021, Katie and her co-worker Joe Pointing spoke about many of these topics, opening up about their own experiences and the way the hobby has supported each of them.
“It kind of blew up way more than we expected it to,” Katie says. “Both of us, and the main Tabletop Tactics account, were flooded with messages over the next few days. People reached out to say how much it meant to them seeing that they weren’t alone, and shared their experiences. I think that was when I realised just how incredible the Warhammer community is, as a whole.”
The comments section of that YouTube video is full of others sharing their own mental health stories, as well as the ways that Warhammer has supported them. With all that in mind, Tom’s latest venture makes a lot of sense.
“I know I’m not alone in my story, and that’s why I’ve founded Mental Hammer,” he explains. “It’s a mental health platform that fuses together the two best parts of me; the desire to create with the desire to help. Mental Hammer aims to be an online platform that encourages discussion and openness around mental health issues, specifically within the tabletop and geek community.
“Those of us who are attracted to geek culture often feel like outcasts and wallflowers, and struggle to fit in. These are the kinds of people Mental Hammer wants to reach. We create content, mostly written articles, that share our stories and talk about mental health. We’re here to have a conversation, to share, to discuss, and to break down stigma. If we remind each other that we’re not alone out there, we’re fulfilling our mission. If we encourage someone to take the first step towards getting professional help, we’re changing lives.”
Online and IRL, in independent shops, local gatherings, after-school clubs, garages, and on dining tables, for those who want to connect with like-minded people (and for those who want to score coveted critical hits), Warhammer offers a space. And, with the escapism, the focus, the solidarity, and the fun, it only makes sense that people like Tom and Katie are putting the mental health conversation on the table.