The making of Total War: Warhammer’s Luthor Harkon

The vampire leader's fragmented mind is captured in his mannerisms and mechanics

“When you think of a pirate, you think of freedom,” Vampire Coast designer Mitchell Heastie says. “They sail the seas, do whatever they want, and that’s something we wanted to offer to the player.” It’s a philosophical point that underpins Total War: Warhammer II’s most recent DLC, and particularly Luthor Harkon’s campaign.

Luthor’s backstory is one of the most colourful in Warhammer. A member of the Harkoni tribe native to the hills around Lahmia, where vampirism began, Lutr Harkoni was sired by one of the first Blood Dragons – a vampiric bloodline that values honour and martial skill. Centuries after Lahmia fell, Luthor resurfaced when Norscan raiders made off with the cargo of an Imperial merchant ship. Unfortunately for them, said cargo included Luthor’s coffin. When their ship eventually crashed on the coast of Lustria, they all had a serious case of You’re Undead Now, and Luthor was very much in charge.

He built a new home for himself where he landed, founding an undead enclave in the jungle that became known as the Vampire Coast. While exploring the neighbourhood, Luthor came upon the abandoned Lizardmen city of Huatl, and had the bright idea to plunder it. In so doing, he disturbed a series of protective glyphs that severed his connection to the Winds of Magic, and scrambled his mind. There’s a lesson in there about failing to take heed of your own origin story.

It’s a lot to work with. So what did Creative Assembly want to emphasise most?

“Mainly his madness,” Heastie says, “and his lack of magic because of the madness. Over the course of the campaign his goal is to repair his mind and get his spells back. His madness is very influential – it’ll change his effects and his stats. He might now and then get a different spell, things like that. So it’s a really varied and different campaign for him.”

Luthor’s madness not only shapes his personal journey in the campaign, but also his distinctive role in combat, painting him as a jealous anti-magic hero.

“Because in the lore he is separated from the Winds of Magic, what we wanted to do with Harkon was make him an anti-caster Lord, rather than just another duellist,” designer Gary Deans says. “He specialises in combating enemy casters – increasing their spell miscast chance or increasing their cooldown. So you’ll send him after other vampire Lords or Slann mage-priests, things like that.”

YouTube Thumbnail

It’s encouraging that Creative Assembly is still able to find niches for new Legendary Lords – even though there are now 50 of them in the Mortal Empires campaign that gathers both Total Warhammers and their DLC. With only so many systems to work with, it’s becoming trickier to differentiate new characters.

“As more content comes out it does get a little bit harder, but I think we’ve been able to deliver that,” Deans says. “Harkon has his anti-magic specialisation, and Cylostra [Direfin] is the first ethereal caster lord that we’ve created. So there is still some fertile ground out there for us to come up with new playstyles and mechanics.”

Harkon also has an uncommon level of utility in his toolkit, reflecting his varied background and, perhaps, his scattered brain. “He’ll hold his own in a duel, depending on the matchup,” Deans says. That’s a consequence of his vampiric strength and Blood Dragon heritage. And yet, being a pirate, he has a pistol, so “he can fire on the move and do a bit of harassment if he wants to”. Moreover, with access to a Terrorgheist as a mount option, he also has excellent mobility. “He’s quite diverse in how he plays,” Deans says – just as he’s diverse in his personalities.

YouTube Thumbnail

The Vampire Coast reveal trailer drove a lot of hype for the DLC, and Luthor Harkon was its charismatic star. It’s clear something’s not quite right when he talks to a corpse, to the camera, and to himself – in the plural. But his voice also plays a big part. Nasal, almost snivelling, and yet not comic, it quivers, like an over-taut guitar string liable to snap, adding a deranged, threatening quality.

“We got a lot of different voice actors to have a go at him, then we chose the one that we thought fits best,” Heastie says. “You have the Sylvanian vampires, the quintessential vampires, who have that very strong accent, but we wanted to make [Harkon] a bit different. He needs to sound a little bit pirate-y, but not too much, and his madness is such an influence on his personality, so that has to come across in his voice.”

How a character should sound is probably something Warhammer creators Games Workshop never had to consider, since they make mute models, but Harkon’s voice carries their seal of approval: “We’re always in contact with them, they’re always on board with everything we do,” Heastie says. “We make sure that they’re okay with it.”

Harkon’s madness is well-communicated at a physical level, too, with his twitchy animations. And there’s one touch I particularly enjoyed – his sword, which he often holds downturned, like a cane.

“It’s like a little accessory that helps in selling his crazy personalities,” animator Eva Seyeux says. “So we have different idle animations, one fancy, one powerful, one crazy old guy. We tried to have one animation per personality.”

Total War: Warhammer II’s Luthor Harkon is a remarkably coherent depiction of a fragmented mind, one which has required coordination across several disciplines: animation, art, sound design, gameplay design, and – let’s not forget – the cinematic team, who threw in a lovely touch all of their own that the community picked up on: Luthor’s creepy smile (“We always love the trailer reaction – it’s one of the most exciting parts of the job, to be honest,” Heastie says).

Read more: Advance on the best strategy games on PC

This is a character for which some old and scrappy fluff exists, but very little artwork, and almost no new material outside of End Times lore, which Total Warhammer doesn’t – yet – incorporate. Nonetheless, Creative Assembly has brought him to life triumphantly, creating one of its most distinctive Legendary Lords to date, more than two and-a-half years after the release of Total War: Warhammer.