Friday, November 13, 2020

Interview: Rick Priestley (Part II)

Last month, I presented Part I of my interview of Rick Priestley, co-creator of Warhammer Fantasy Battle and originator of Warhammer 40,000. What follows is the second and final part of this interview, in which Mr Priestley once again provides lengthy and insightful answers that illuminate the early days of Games Workshop and the games he created and developed while he worked there. 


4. How long after all of this did Ansell go on to found Citadel Miniatures? How long after that did you join the company and what were your initial responsibilities there?

I wasn’t involved with the founding of Citadel so all I can tell you is what I believe to be common knowledge, namely that Citadel was founded in 1979 by Bryan in conjunction with Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone of Games Workshop. I was at university in Lancaster from 1978 to 1981 studying archaeology, and was otherwise occupied, so to speak.

I joined Citadel, then based at Victoria Street, Newark, in late 1982 and my initial role was to "do the mail order." There was just me dealing with all the mail order at that time. Previously

the mail order had been done by Richard Halliwell, Duncan MacFarlane or by Bryan himself, and I’d also helped out occasionally on a casual basis. I would go on to build the mail order team and pass the role on fairly quickly. After that Tony Ackland and I went on to found the first studio, which was at Mill Gate in Newark, and produce the first Warhammer, catalogues, journals and so on.

It was a very small team when I joined and we all did a bit of everything really. As well as booking in mail orders, sorting out the cheques and postal orders for banking, collating/dispatching the orders and dealing with mail shots, Tony and I would put together

all the catalogues, pamphlets, inserts and other advertising as well as any packaging that was required. I also learned how to cast - often necessary to complete orders – and had a go at making moulds. Often we’d all pitch in to fulfil big trade orders or to help out with deliveries (all by hand – you couldn’t get a palette truck through the narrow doorway – the arrival of the monthly metal order was always greeted with some trepidation). You have to remember it was a tiny operation really – nothing like what it would become.

5. When did the idea for the game that would become Warhammer first appear and who was responsible for it? I have a recollection that it was originally intended as a promotional product to help sell miniatures. Is that correct?

The idea for a set of rules to allow folks to play something like a battle was something that Bryan Ansell came up with when he was running Citadel. It was something we all talked about when I joined, so it was "in the air," so to speak. There had been fantasy games of this kind before, so the idea wasn’t new in itself, there were a number of rulesets already out there although they tended to be a little over-complex and most were crudely produced. However, it was definitely Bryan who called the shots on such things - he was the boss after all! There was talk of a "free" set of rules that would be given away with the mail order. At the time, we produced an A3 mail order flyer every month that was basically a catalogue supplement with deals and a bit of a write-up for the new models. The notion was that the "rules" would be something like an A3 sheet. Bryan was keen on selling figures in "regiments" rather than just the odd one or two that folks were ordering for playing Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. In that sense, the game was initially conceived as a promotional venture – but Warhammer has always existed to "sell" the models, as it continues to do to this day. The story of Warhammer starting out as "free" rules is just one of those press anecdotes – yes it’s sort of true – but it never happened like that. We did later on publish rules and stats for new models on the mail order sheets, and even on the backs of the boxes of some models, but by that time the Warhammer game already existed. 

The idea of a "free giveaway" never reached fruition because as soon as we started to think about what was involved it was obvious we were talking about a book (three booklets in fact). Richard Halliwell and myself had written and published rules together before, and Bryan had published his own rules too. One of the reasons Bryan recruited me was to produce these kinds of publications. Bryan came up with a basic brief for what he wanted – stressing that it had to be a game youngsters could play using ordinary dice, that it had to have rules for everything we made, and it had to have a token "role-playing" element because at that time role-playing was extremely hot. Richard Halliwell was given a commission to develop and write it – Richard (Hal) wasn’t working for Citadel at the time but freelancing as a mould maker. That meant he had spare time to devote to developing the game.

So we started playing – all out of house and in our own time – there was no way anyone was going to pay you to sit around designing games in those days! Hal worked out the basic mechanics and produced a type-script. I collaborated on the design, and there were a number of Hal’s friends and Citadel employees who pitched in with playing. Hal handed the type-script over to me at the newly founded studio (basically me and Tony Ackland) and between us Tony and I edited, expanded and to some degree completed the work that would become the first Warhammer. Bryan didn’t do any hands-on work at that point - he was busy running the place – but he contributed ideas to the rules and provided a much-needed steer and plenty of encouragement. Bryan was very keen that the rules should be accessible to younger players in a way that the Featherstone and Grant rules were when we were novice players ourselves. It was Bryan’s insistence that the rules use only ordinary dice that led to Hal adopting that "roll to hit," "roll to kill," and "roll to save" system that was a modification of the percentage "roll to hit/roll to kill" system we’d developed for our Reaper game. You needed a three stage roll to get the breadth of stats for a fantasy game with everything from Gnomes (yes really) to Dragons.


6. Your name is listed second in the credits for "game design and development" for 1986's Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. What specifically were your contributions to the game?

Well it was a long time ago for a start so exactly what I did I can’t rightly recall, but if I remember correctly the project was something we started with just me writing in-house and Richard Halliwell contributing out of house. At the time Tony Ackland was our sole in-house artist and he did all of the initial artwork. Tony and I would have bounced stuff between us as we always did on those early projects. I remember working out the world background – it was really when the Warhammer World gelled - and I researched medieval settlements, roads and such like in quite a bit of detail. I pretty much wrote the first draft - but the idea for careers was something Hal came up with – I remember that because he couldn’t get it to work and abandoned it. I thought it was worth persevering with, so I took the idea and expanded it massively, and I wrote up all the careers and worked out the career paths. We pretty much had a finished manuscript when the studio was still at Eastwood. By the time that Jim Bambra, Mike Brunton and Phil Gallagher joined us (all ex-TSR UK writers with a lot of experience with role-playing games) the game was essentially there – but I’m sure it benefited from their experience at in terms of further play-testing and editing. I remember in particular that when we played as a group the more experienced role-players thought the combat system was too dangerous, which is why we came up with the idea of "fate points" to add some "ballast" into player survivability.

The scenario was written by Hal – "The Oldenhaller Contract" – and I seem to recall he wrote that as a freelancer. During the writing and production of WFRPG the studio transitioned from being just me, Tony, John and Joanne, our sole-production assistant, to a big team that included the ex-TSR designers as well as Graeme Davis, Ken Rolston, Stephan Hand and a great many middle managers and even more production folks. White Dwarf moved up from London together with some of the staff, and so what had been a very tight team suddenly became something different. That TSR team and Graeme would go on to produce all the role-playing supplement for WFRP including the Death on the Reik series and everything that made the game such a success. So – although the book itself was almost all my own work, all the subsequent role-playing material was handled by others.


7. Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader was released in 1987 and you're credited as the sole designer. When did you first get the idea for a science fiction version of Warhammer and what were your primary inspirations in doing so?

Well I had a game called "Rogue Trader" that I brought to Citadel when I joined – but that game was basically a spaceship combat style game for which I’d designed the models. I joined Citadel on the understanding that I’d "get to do" Rogue Trader one day – and we got as far as advertising it in one of the early Citadel Journals if I remember correctly. Once Warhammer took off we started to put science-fiction elements in right away – you can see it in some of the Journal and Compendium articles, especially in the scenarios set in Lustria where the Amazons are often armed with alien weapons of mysterious kind.

So, the idea was always there, and I was always pushing to "do Rogue Trader" but didn’t get a chance until the TSR crew joined up. After that we were awash with designers, and at the time there was an assumption that the "big money" was in role-playing games and board games – so we started to produce those in some quantity. We also employed Nigel Stillman to take on some of the Warhammer work specifically, and Hal re-joined the studio at about the same time. So, whilst everyone else was distracted I finally got to "do Rogue Trader," although when I started no one expected it to amount to much. The word at the time was that "science-fiction doesn’t sell," this was so axiomatic that I was to understand we wouldn’t make many new models, but people would be encouraged to convert their fantasy models into science-fiction equivalents, to which end we would make conversion packs of weapons. That’s why the Rogue Trader/40K alien races are basically Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, etc "in space" – although to be fair that was also the premise of my original spaceship rules. Those spaceship rules were supposed to be printed in the back of the Rogue Trader book – but alas by the time I’d written everything else there wasn’t room!

As with the original Warhammer, Rogue Trader was an out-of-house commission, and I wrote the draft text in my own time rather than at work, although I subsequently did a lot of development work as my day job. I think by that time it was obvious the game was going to do well – despite the indisputable fact that science fiction doesn’t sell – and resources started to be put into it. That included the first plastics as well as lots of metal models and artwork. Of course it sold very well indeed and has continued to do so ever since in its various iterations right up to the present day.

I don’t know about inspirations. I’d been playing science-fiction wargames in various forms for years together with Richard Halliwell. A lot of our Reaper games were a mix of fantasy and science-fiction. I think it was that at the time I thought a lot of the science-fiction games that already existed were a bit old-fashioned – often based on or inspired by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Star Wars was still quite a big thing and that idea of squeaky clean heroes – of good guys and bad guys – was typical of how folks approached science-fiction at the time. Well as you know, 40K isn’t like that – it’s a universe sustained by its own madness, where ignorance really is strength, and where archaic institutions battle for power within a feudal universe that’s almost medieval in character. That’s what appealed to me about the project – a chance to describe a universe that really was grim and dark albeit in the context of a game of toy soldiers! The reason for that was obviously to set up a background for a game of warfare, and one that could be sustained practically forever too. It seems to have worked reasonably well.

8. Among the elements that have always made 40K compelling were its dark sense of humor, playful irony, and its nuanced, occasionally philosophical, approach to some of the questions raised by its setting. Do you agree and do you think that the game as it currently exists still retains those elements?

The original book certainly combined a dystopic and violent universe with humour – perhaps the irony was rather heavy handed and maybe the humour verges on the silly in places – but I was writing a book about wargames for wargamers and not aiming for literary credibility. And just as well, you might reasonably say! My approach has always tended to combine high and low styles together. Sometimes that was to evoke a deliberate clash intended to remind us that this is all pretend and we should not take it too seriously. I probably couldn’t resist the gag. I did cheerfully plunder some quite serious literary references. If I read or saw something that "would work well in 40K" I used to just jot it down and it would be re-worked into the text.

I think that approach did colour the way other authors at GW presented the universe; especially in the hands of Mike Brunton and Graeme Davis because we shared a sense of humour (and often the odd pint or two at the Salutation after work). It was fun coming up with all the imperial mantras and nonsense sayings, and I think we were quite competitive about it, trying to make each other laugh whilst riffing on different ideas. We were quite an educated bunch. At a time when most people didn’t go to college we were all graduates – Phil Gallagher studied Russian at Cambridge – and both me and Graeme (and Nigel Stillman for that matter) had studied archaeology so we brought a lot of broad cultural and historical references into our worlds.

As 40K evolved, and other writers took over the job, it did get increasingly po-faced, which I always thought missed the point a bit – but what can you do? I didn’t have much to do with the development of 40K in my last years at GW. I haven’t so much as looked at it since I left in 2010, so I can’t comment on what it’s like now as I’ve no idea. During my last few years the company was going very much in the direction of producing bigger models for everything – because those are far more profitable than regular "troops" – so the game (and this goes for all the games not just 40K) was being re-imagined around the big models rather than trying to reflect the background or any recognisable representation of warfare. Not my thing really but I’m sure it has its appeal on its own terms. Whatever the current game/back story is like, it certainly continues to be popular judging by the Games Workshop financial results (I write at the end of 2020), and good luck to them I say.

9. As you mentioned, you left Games Workshop in 2010. What have you been doing since then? Do you have any current projects you'd like to highlight or promote?

I’ve done a few things with some of my ex-Games Workshop comrades – people I worked with for years such as John Stallard, Alessio Cavatore and Paul Sawyer. I’m retired now and don’t intend to undertake any big projects, though there’s a few odds and ends that still need sorting out. I wrote a game together with the Lucid Eye team of Steve and Joe Salah – The Red Book of The Elf King – which was envisaged as three books of which we’ve completed the first two (the second is Troll Wars). We were going to do the third one (provisionally Hell Saga) this year but because of the Covid-19 epidemic things have been put on hold. We hope to get back to that next year (2021) assuming things calm down a bit.

I wrote a couple of sets of historical game rules for Warlord GamesBlack Powder and Hail Caesar – and helped out with the World War Two game Bolt Action (Alessio Cavatore was lead designer for that one). Those have been successful in terms of historical wargames and Warlord Games has grown from a couple of guys in a dingy office to a proper grown up company operating out of a sizeable and very smart industrial unit just round the corner from Games Workshop HQ. It’s been fun working with so many of my friends from my days at GW – it’s amazing how many of those who own and work for the local wargames companies have passed through the doors of GW.

I also produced a science fiction game based on the Bolt Action game system – Beyond the Gates of Antares – and a fantasy warband game called Warlords of Erehwon (that’s nowhere backwards in case you missed it!). There’s a second edition of Antares already written but put on hold because of the epidemic – so I don’t know when that’ll be out. Whilst waiting for it I wrote a fantasy game that uses the same basic engine, and I’m having a lot of fun with that. It’s another slightly tongue-in-cheek take on fantasy, a bit like early Warhammer, although there’s no overall background and players are encouraged to "do their own thing." I’ve created a website which has all the updated army lists, including many new ones, as well as errata and various play aids – it’s called This Gaming Life and you can find it under thisgaminglife.uk or rickpriestley.com.

4 comments:

  1. Great interview and interesting bits to hear!

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  2. The fact that the reason (or at least one of the reasons) WH40K used traditional fantasy species instead of new scifi species was because it was expected to fail and they wanted people to be able to just retrofit their fantasy models for the game is fascinating to me. I love these historical idiosyncratic moments; if they had thought it would be more successful from the get-go, perhaps it would look more like Star Wars or something else entirely, who knows? To my comparatively limited understanding, WH40K is actually pretty interesting and much more than just "Tolkien in space" as many people describe it and as I used to think of it before learning more about it, and I think it's in part because of these weird historical accidents that we get some of the more interesting facets.

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  3. Here's one of the original advertisements for Warhammer 40k, before the system was written. https://i.imgur.com/KUxoGWj.jpg

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