Friday, October 16, 2020

Interview: Rick Priestley (Part I)

For gamers of a certain age, especially in the UK, Rick Priestley needs no introduction. Designer of 1983's Warhammer Fantasy Battle (with Bryan Ansell and Richard Halliwell), he also had a hand in many of the many games that derived from it, such as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer 40,000. Mr Priestley worked at Games Workshop until 2009, when he left to join Warlord Games, which has published several of his designs, perhaps most notably Bolt Action. He very kindly agreed to an interview, the first part of which I am pleased to present below. 

As you will see, Mr Priestley's answers are quite thorough and touch upon many aspects of not only his own experiences but the early days of UK gaming. Since the process of answering my questions in such a fashion takes time, there will be gaps of several weeks between installments of this interview. Nevertheless, I have no doubt readers will agree that what he has to say is worth the wait. I learned a great deal from his answers and am grateful he took the time to provide them.

1. How did you first become involved in the hobby of miniatures wargaming?

It’s the usual story for players of my generation and nothing out of the ordinary. Like every other boy in the 60’s, I was brought up with Airfix models and Britains/Timpo toy soldiers, all sold through Woolworths and commonly available across the nation. Boys’ comics were full of war stories and war themes made for popular TV and films. For many of us, our relatives had served in either the second or first world wars and our parents certainly lived through the second war. Our fathers had probably done national service after the war. Even as infants we routinely played 'war’ in the playgrounds using stick guns and imaginary hand grenades. Children’s magazines like Look and Learn and World of Wonder often had military themes and history was still respectably a tale of battles and kings, with proper dates and all.

At the same time, games were pretty much universal parts of growing up, especially board games, which we all treasured as Christmas and birthday presents. Even as kids we would congregate in each others' houses to play whatever new and exciting games were about. That continued as we turned into teenagers, and we would start to buy and play SPI and Avalon Hill games – the latter were very expensive through – quite an investment at the time! At the same time we’d be putting together more advanced plastic kits, so it wasn’t just wargaming: it was always a mix of military modelling, board gaming and miniatures-based wargames. Many of us would lean one way or the other – perhaps dabbling in miniatures wargaming whilst being primarily a modeller or board gamer, for example. 

I don’t think there was much of a leap from assembling and painting Airfix kits and collecting toy soldiers to devising games with them. I guess the moment when ‘playing’ turned to ‘gaming’ for me was with the discovery of ‘proper wargames’ in the form of the books written by Charles Grant, Donald Featherstone, and Brigadier Peter Young. There was also a series of little booklets in the ‘Discovering’ series (part of Shire publications – pocket-money books on a variety of subjects). Anyway, I came across a copy of Charles Grant’s Battle! Practical Wargaming in a local book store, and that was the loose end of a ball of string as far as I was concerned. That was the first time I encountered proper rules. Afterwards I made friends with other lads at my school who had started wargaming in a similar fashion. Military Modelling began publishing in January 1971 and quickly became the ‘go to’ resource for young wargamers, with adverts from all the leading manufacturers and publishers of the day. I suppose I would have been 12 years old when I came across that first book, towards the end of my first year at secondary school I think.

2. What about RPGs? When and under what circumstances did you first encounter roleplaying games?

Role-playing games didn’t really exist as a genre until quite late in my wargaming day. Before D&D came along in – I guess it must have been 1975 – there was a style of wargaming with miniatures that you might characterise as ‘skirmish’ wargaming. In skirmish wargames a figure was one man rather than representing a portion of a larger formation. Often our men would have names and they would take part in a series of adventures with a continuous narrative, and individuals would survive wounds, gain experiential bonuses and buy, steal or make new weapons and so on. These were ‘role-playing’ games after a fashion, even if we didn’t use that name, and often they would be based upon adventures in the American West or the high days of Empire in Africa. At that time it was reasonably common to have an ‘umpire’ running even ordinary tabletop wargames, so it was usual for someone to work out a game and others to play it out. In essential details this kind of wargaming was the ancestor of all role-playing games.

If you read about the history of D&D, you’ll see that it was a very similar route that led the TSR team from publishing wargames rules to role-playing games via their Chainmail system. Some of my friends and I were already playing similar fantasy games – skirmish fantasy wargames with named characters and a story arc worked out by an umpire. When the first copies of D&D appeared in the UK we did feel a bit as it we’d been beaten to the post! I did go on to play D&D though and created dungeons: this was with the imported rules – I think it was the second edition – three books in a brownish box. A friend of mine had the rule book and some of the early supplements, which was just as well because it was a damned expensive affair! That early version of D&D was extremely free-form, which was very appealing, and beyond that I would just make up stuff – great fun. I never got any further than that with D&D or any commercial RPGs that came afterwards. They all seemed over-regulated and rule-driven to me. Some of the background was nicely done though – RuneQuest especially – and the RuneQuest percentage driven mechanic was considered pace-setting at the time. Some skirmish wargames rules had also used a similar mechanic, as did the first published set of rules that I was involved with – Reaper. I think by the time D&D developed into a phenomenon my gaming had taken a back-seat to college life. Afterwards it was more a question of earning a living so my interest became more professional than hobby.

3. Would you mind talking more about Reaper? You designed this set of rules with Richard Halliwell. What was the origin of the game? Were you happy with the published version?

Reaper was born from two things: a fantasy campaign that Hal ran, and our mutual ambition to publish a set of wargames rules. I think that ambition  to write and publish our own rules – was something that we nurtured all through our teenage years. Hal had a set of science fiction space combat rules printed in a fan magazine called Dragon’s Lair – an irregular newsletter for fantasy wargamers, the first of its kind in the UK as far as I know. We worked on rules together and would invent games using the models we had. I remember coming up with a science-fiction boarding action game that used gridded floor plans to represent different parts of a space ship – something like what would become Space Hulk. Obviously, as teenagers, we were convinced we could do a better job than any of the published rules writers out there. Such is the arrogance of youth.

Not that there was much for fantasy wargames at that time. There was a set of fantasy amendments for the Wargames Research Group ancient rules, which we adapted and used for most of our early fantasy games. These would be games in Tolkien’s Middle-earth using the Minifigs ME (Mythical Earth) range of models. Later on we would prefer to write our own rules to go with whatever fantasy projects presented themselves. Both Minfigs and Garrison produced a range based on Robert E Howard’s Conan stories that included some nice monsters and unusual ‘fantasy’ types.

I don’t remember exactly when the first percentile dice arrived in the UK, although I recall they were sold by Skytrex and were quite expensive. These were actually 20-sided dice numbered 0-9 twice – one red and one black making a pair. There were a few games that featured these dice. I remember in particular a set of WW2 naval rules that used a series of complicated charts and graphs in conjunction with a percentage mechanic to determine the effect of gunfire. These dice suggested rules mechanisms different from those associated with usual six-sided dice. Percentage dice – D100s if you like – imply a mathematical profundity and precision that I believe we found appealing at the time. They give a feel of a serious and proper game – something more realistic than could be achieved with a D6. I still maintain that D100s give that feel to a game, though I would also suggest that it is a ‘feel’ only and in fact such mechanics are neither more realistic nor more accurate in terms of simulation. D100s can be remarkably unhelpful because of the even spread of probability, making fluky scores rather more common that you might wish. I would go on to use a D100 system for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but we had to ameliorate the fluke element with ‘fate points’ to protect players from erratic dice swings.

Anyway, we started to use a percentage system as the basis for our own fantasy wargames. I think the game that inspired us to do so more than any other was The Old West Gunfight rules by Mike Blake, Steve Curtis and Ian Colwill. This was an inspiring set of rules with snippets of history and lovely sketches to accompany the text. For the time this was rather unusual. We are in the age of rulebooks that were solid text and roneo’d sheets stapled together rather than printed and bound. As for photographs and even diagrams… dream on! Our games evolved as a mixture of rules that we’d transposed from other games together with our own percentage driven combat system. In essence they were skirmish wargames with heroes and followers, and usually fixed upon a scenario where our gallant warriors had to travel across a blighted wilderness enduring the onslaught of mutant monsters, rescuing allies from the clutches of ne’er-do-wells, capturing ancient or mystical towers to uncover mysterious artefacts, and so on. Although ostensibly a ‘fantasy’ campaign, events were to reveal a world that was in reality a post-apocalyptic earth where magic had developed in the clutches of psychic mutants following some catastrophic nuclear war. The action eventually took us to a semi-terraformed Mars via a matter transporter. So, I say fantasy… but there was a lot of science-fiction. To some extent this setting was inspired by Michael Moorcock’s stories, notably the Count Brass books which are part of the History of the Runestaff series.

I can’t remember exactly at which point our collection of rules and notes became Reaper but the name was taken from the Blue Oyster Cult song "Don’t Fear the Reaper," a jukebox favourite following its release in 1976. Asgard Miniatures was also founded in 1976, and we’d started to incorporate some of the first Asgard releases into our games. Asgard were based in Nottingham – which is not all that far from Lincoln where Hal and I lived – and I think we had this notion that maybe Asgard would publish our rules. Of course, we had little idea of what publishing amounted to at that time, let alone how to sell something you’d published, but – as I said before – we were ambitious! Hal phoned the number on the Asgard advert and spoke to Bryan Ansell, who every generously invited us over to Nottingham to demonstrate our game. Bryan showed us round the Asgard workshop, which was a small unit round the corner from where he lived, little more than a double garage really. That was the first time we’d seen casting machines and mould presses and all the paraphernalia of manufacturing wargamers figures. I seemed to remember I bought some figures ‘hot’ out of the mould! Bryan was very encouraging, not just with the rules but also with painting and modelling. I’d painted a lot of the models we took over for our demo and I’d also made conversions of some of them. I think in those days Bryan was keen to see if anyone half-promising could design figures. I did subsequently paint a few models up for the Asgard display and even made a few bits and pieces that found their way into the range. It was Bryan who hooked us up with the owners of the Nottingham Model Soldier Shop – who eventually published Reaper.

I got the job of putting the book together having been introduced to the concept of ‘camera ready copy’ by Bryan. Basically, I typed the rules up onto A3 sheets which would then be reduced down to A4. We had a typewriter at home and it happened to have a ‘legal’ carriage, i.e. an extra wide carriage that could take bigger sheets of paper. I left spaces for illustrations which would be added by Hal and Bryan using stock artwork from the Asgard adverts. I think by this time – probably late '77 and early '78 – Hal was at Nottingham University, so he was travelling a lot between Nottingham and Lincoln, acting as go between. I was out of school but wouldn’t go off to college until late '78, so I guess I had some time on my hands. Anyway, I did the basic production work, finalising the text and drawing up the few diagrams, adding the headers using rub-down Letraset transfers. Hal sorted out the cover and a friend drew the cover illustration. Bryan added a nice sketch of Hal onto the credit page – not a bad likeness either!

Hal handled the final stage over in Nottingham. It was printed by the Nottingham Model Soldier Shop – although often described as ‘Asgard’ at the time – and was supposedly the longest set of British wargames rules published to date! Much of that was down to a rather lengthy set of magic rules, which I’d developed as a kind of ‘build your own spell’ system. The rules were quite expensive and I don’t think they exactly set the world on fire, but it’s amazing how many people say they played and enjoyed them back in the day. Later on a second edition was published by Tabletop Games – essentially a tidied up version of the game – and these are fairly easy to find. The second edition is easy to spot because it’s only A5 size compared to the original A4, and it’s saddle-stitched rather than slide bound as was the original.

Mechanically, Reaper suffered from being a little too predictable in terms of combat resolution, basically because of the accumulated percentages. For example, ten men fighting with a 17% of scoring a hit would calculate out at 170% or 1 hit and a 70% chance of a second. In essence, you would inflict 1 or 2 hits every time and that was that. Hits were moderated by a ‘toughness’ role – a sort of saving throw – but even so things were a bit too predictable really. Later on I tried splitting the results out into 50% chances and taking rolls for each, but with D100’s that’s a bit cumbersome so I reduced the percentages to a D10 system with some loss of detail. At the end of the day you lose a lot of the advantages of a D100 system doing that and if you’re going to go for 50% rolls you might as well be throwing a D6.

The Reaper rules were actually more of a battle game than the games we were actually playing, mostly because our role-playing elements were pretty much done free-form by the umpire without any rules as such. There was a lot of ‘it’s up to you’ in the game system and that’s something I think both of us felt was key to the game. I think we were rebelling against the ‘rules are rules and must be obeyed as holy writ’ style of game that was more usual at the time (and since!).

Reaper was the gateway that introduced Hal and myself to the world of miniature manufacture and rules publishing, and most importantly to Bryan Ansell who would later go on to recruit both of us into Citadel and hence Games Workshop. Two other players who took part in our Reaper games (members of what we called LOON – the Lincoln Order of Necromancers) also joined Citadel – before me – Paul Elsey, who became a mould maker, and Anthony Epworth, who became the shop floor manager and subsequently a mould maker. So really, we have a lot to thank Bryan Ansell for, and none of it would have happened without Reaper.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent interview. Rick Priestley is one of my all-time wargaming heroes, ever since I discovered miniature wargaming through Warhammer 1st edition in the early 80s.

    Interesting to read how the idea of "roleplaying" was floating around in wargaming circles in various incarnations.

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  2. I still have Reaper and I'm looking at my copies of the two Old West skirmish rules booklets. Don Featherstone featured a write up of a gunfight in an issue of the, now very old, Wargamers Newsletter. Roleplaying was clearly floating, and going swimmingly, in the background with Justin Time the town,s newspaper editor featuring strongly.

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  3. I still have my copy of Reaper and I'm looking now at the two Old West skirmish booklets. An old edition of Don Featherstone,s Wargamers Newsletter featured a gunfight based on the latter rules. Roleplaying was floating, and going swimmingly, as one of the characters, the town,s newspaper editor Justin Time, featured as an unlikely hero.

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