FLYING DEATH SKULLS

One of the great pleasures of writing this blog has been reading the comments made on the site by some of WFRP‘s original authors and artists. They are usually the most interesting parts of the blog. So I was delighted when I recently discovered that Derrick Norton had commented on a post. Derrick worked on some of my favourite WFRP adventures, such as ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and Power Behind the Throne. He has been kind enough to share some of his experiences of working on the WFRP team in the late 1980s. They offer a fascinating insight into WFRP‘s early development. I have posted below Derrick’s recollections of working on ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I am hopeful that Derrick will be able to share more of his memories in future.

Warning. Spoilers for ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ follow.

REFLECTIONS ON DEVELOPING WFRP ‘THE GRAPES OF WRATH’

Thirty years is a long time: apologies if recalled facts are, in fact, not facts!

In summer 1987, GW advertised in WD92 for creative staff and I applied. I had written and co-written a handful of articles for Imagine magazine, and I was playing and running FRP games regularly (including WFRP). I was also nearing the end of a research contract at Leeds University so a role with GW in Nottingham appealed for three reasons: personal (I had been a student at Nottingham University and had friends in the city); creative (to work on games); and financial (to have a job).

The response from GW was positive but only for freelance work. I was invited by Phil Gallagher to work on a draft adventure from Carl Sargent entitled ‘Flying Death Skulls’ as a major WD article in its own right but also to keep up interest on TEWC before the next major instalment (Power Behind the Throne). I did not know Carl at all, and only met him once (possibly twice) after ‘Flying Death Skulls’ was actually published under its new title ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the one who came up with the new title but I certainly preferred it.

I was still living in Leeds so (pre-internet) commissioning, developing, editing and proofing all had to done in hardcopy by post and the odd phone call. Phil sent the draft manuscript around October 1987 and asked me to summarise what needed to be done to get it ready for publication. I seem to recall seeing the planned artwork because I didn’t find the illustrations of flying skulls holding torches in their mouths all that inspiring (more Hammer-horror than WFRP-grit or Cthulhu-terror).

As a fantasy role-player, game designer, and GM I had views (don’t we all?) on what did or did not make for a good adventure. I prepared a review for Phil along the lines of “Well, it’s OK but it does need a lot of work”. I gave examples of the issues as I saw them but not the complete list, probably due to naïve creative paranoia on my part that someone else in GW would then take over (had I known how stretched the Design Studio was at the time I would not have worried).

In my view, the manuscript was an early draft rather than something near final. I didn’t know what Carl had been commissioned to deliver so I was slightly nervous about sending criticism in case it ruffled feathers. Luckily, Phil’s reply was along the lines of “Yeah, we have the same opinion”. Phil referred to it as “typical Carl” so I concluded I’d been given – and passed – a test. The collective view was that the draft had some good ideas and content, some silly stuff (eg title, various NPC names, Clod the pet shovel) and a range of other issues needing attention.

Had I kept my full review I’d be well-placed to comment on what additions, deletions, and revisions were made as I used it as a checklist. Subsequent correspondence with Phil (some of which I do still have) clearly suggest significant work was needed. In spring 1989 (ie six months after I had left GW on good personal terms to become a civil servant) Phil asked me to review a draft Empire in Flames manuscript without telling me who the writer was (but the style and standard were by then very familiar). I replied on 29 March 1989 writing, “…EIF is in exactly the same submission state as ‘Grapes’ or ‘Power’: it requires extensive editing and development”.

Re-reading ‘GoW’ in preparation for this post I can sort-of recall / recognise some of my likely contributions accepting I may be completely wrong. For example:

– desire of Kurtz the mercenary not to fight to the death to protect Dieter, and Kurtz’s knowledge about Dieter’s intentions (which help PCs work out the plot);

– Mathilda’s true gossip about Stefan (I seem to recall in the original she was an NPC intended simply and only to provide misleading gossip and waste PC time);

– orientation behaviour of a dormant skull which points PCs towards Dieter’s cave (captive migratory birds do the same, something I learned in my degree); and

– GM advice on action to take if the PCs did obtain 42 pieces of warpstone.

I suspect that the following text is also mine: “…the villagers will not be too happy at the prospect of a magical skull, no matter how tame, flying around the village”. This and similar material would have been included in anticipation of what my FRP friends would have done given the same opportunity to have their very own pet Chaos skull. (When I subsequently ran the adventure, I recall that the PCs did quite well out of it and secured an annual revenue stream from the vineyard’s profits.)

Finally, I seem to recall that the draft adventure was always giving the PCs a hard time. This is, clearly, a style point which some designers, GMs and players prefer. My own preference was to give PCs a hard time if they were stupid, careless, or unlucky: PCs being PCs this is almost bound to happen at various points during an adventure so there is no need to turn the difficulty dial to 11 for each element of that adventure. As a GM, I always found it funnier when PCs got into a mess of their own design, not because I’d included some type of Kobayashi Maru plotline.

In any event, I worked on the draft for 3-4 weeks and was finished by end November 1987 (proofing may have run into December but by then I’d started to concentrate on PBtT). I do recall every submission needed a signed statement giving copyright of my work to GW until the end all things.

The published writing credit in WD98 was “by Carl Sargent with Derrick Norton” which I certainly regarded as fair. In preparing for this post I discovered (with relaxed good humour) that the 2005 version re-printed in Plundered Vaults has a slightly different attribution in the introduction: “Carl Sargent’s Grapes of Wrath”. As the late, great Terry Pratchet might have said, history is written by those who wrote it last!

I did three-months’ freelancing for GW (November 1987 – January 1988) which, in hindsight, was a probationary period to make sure I could do the work. I started full-time employment at the Design Studio in February 1988 working on various WD and GW material but with the priority initially to complete development of Power Behind the Throne (more reflections in a forthcoming post).

Thanks to Derrick for sharing this. He has shared more fascinating insights here.

Title art by Les Edwards. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

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4 thoughts on “FLYING DEATH SKULLS

    1. Hi Graeme. I almost did myself a mischief getting the box out of the attic that had all my FRP memorabilia. I’m impressed to see you made a full career out of gaming: you deserve a long-service and good conduct medal.

      Liked by 2 people

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