THE WFRP STORY XXVII: RIPPLES

This post continues my history of WFRP1, which started here.

GW was not the only games company to experience upheaval in 1985. Its principal competitor, TSR, also underwent dramatic change. The ripples emanating from events at TSR spread far and wide, but had a decisive impact on WFRP.

GW and TSR had not always been in competition. In the very early days they had been partners. GW’s entry into role-playing had come with an agreement to be TSR’s exclusive European distributor.

We ordered six copies [of D&D], because that’s all the money we had in the world available as spare cash, and on the back of that order we got a 3-year exclusive distribution agreement for the whole of Europe from Gary [Gygax] because he was just happy to have a European distributor….

– Ian Livingstone, The Grognard Files, episode 50, part 1

They’d managed to acquire a 3-year exclusive distribution agreement for the whole of Europe from Tactical Studies Rules…. This was granted when Games Workshop made their first order; for six copies of D&D….

– Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, pre-publication excerpt from Dice Men: Games Workshop 1975 to 1985

For a number of years the relationship between TSR and GW was close. Between 1977 and 1978 GW produced UK editions of D&D, and in 1979 the two companies agreed to collaborate on a new AD&D hardback, based on White Dwarf‘s ‘Fiend Factory’ articles.

We (that is Games Workshop, who have asked me to edit the project) intend to produce and publish a volume of monsters, most of which have been submitted for inclusion in the ‘[Fiend] Factory’, as the second volume of the Monster Manual; the publication will have official TSR recognition and will be called the Fiend Folio (to maintain some alliteration)…. Publication date has not been fixed, but we hope to aim for late 1979.

– Don Turnbull, ‘Fiend Factory’ White Dwarf 18 (April/May 1979)

The closeness of the relationship eventually led TSR to propose a merger with GW.

We had the D&D licence for three years at the end of which Gary Gygax came over to see us and said he wanted to merge Games Workshop with TSR. Being independently minded still-young Brits and not wishing to spend half our life in Wisconsin, we said no to that merger. It was a very tough and, I’ll say, brave decision to do that, because suddenly we had lost exclusivity to D&D. We still remained the largest distributor. Gary said, “Obviously we are going to have to set up TSR UK.”, and that’s obviously what happened with Don [Turnbull] at the helm. But we wanted to forge our destiny…. We thought we would be able to live without exclusivity to D&D, and build up our own product line at the same time, still being able to distribute D&D. It put us in a pretty strong position, I think, to be able to remain independent….

– Ian Livingstone, The Grognard Files, episode 50, part 1

A bit later on I was actively promoting a merger with Games Workshop, but the Blumes managed to frighten off Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Of course that merger would have given those two 25% interest in TSR, and the control of the company would no longer have rested in the hands of Brian and Kevin. Such are the vicissitudes of corporate affairs….

– Gary Gygax, ‘The Ultimate Interview with Gary Gygax’, Dungeons.it

The failure to agree a merger altered the two companies’ relationship, and set them on diverging paths. TSR, as Gygax had promised, established a UK entity to compete with GW.

The UK marketplace was an excellent one for TSR. When it became clear that we could not reach agreement with GW in regards a merger and Games Workshop was moving to develop and market its own product line, the only logical step was to create a subsidiary operation in the UK. This was again my purview and during a trip to England I hired Don Turnbull to head up the new operation. TSR UK would also serve as the clearing house for business in Europe until further development could be accomplished.

– Gary Gygax, ‘The Ultimate Interview with Gary Gygax’, Dungeons.it

1980: To meet growing international demand, TSR, Ltd. is formed in England.

– Wizards of the Coast website, ‘The History of TSR’

The Game WIzards Have Arrived in the UK, WD18

Advertisement in White Dwarf 18 (April/May 1980)

The Fiend Folio became a casualty of the changed relationship. Although dated “August 1979” in its foreword, its publication was delayed until 1981, when it became a TSR release.

GW arranged with TSR for their Fiend Folio to be an “official” AD&D release, as their earlier gaming accessories had been. Turnbull finished the book for GW around September 1979 … after which time it sat around for two years! The problem was that agreements over the AD&D license fell apart, and it would be two years before a deal was finally made. In the end, it wasn’t Games Workshop who published Fiend Folio (1981), but instead TSR, as their fifth AD&D hardcover.

– Shannon Appelcline, Designers & Dragons: The 70’s, p139

For its part, GW began to develop and publish its own games. Its intentions were made clear in a provocative advert in White Dwarf 20 (August/September 1980) that launched its first proprietary titles.

The British Empire Strikes Back, WD20

Advertisement in White Dwarf 20 (August/September 1980)

GW continued to expand its portfolio over the following years. By the time it had launched WFRP1 in 1986, it had produced ten board games, three sets of miniatures rules and three RPGs.*

It has at times been been suggested that the development of WFRP was motivated by the end of GW’s D&D exclusivity. However, if there was a connection, it was a distant one. There was a gap of more than six years between the break with TSR and the publication of WFRP1. Moreover, GW initially rejected the idea of producing its own fantasy RPG in favour of licensing RuneQuest and developing content for that game’s QuestWorld setting.

So I go up to see Ian [Livingstone] and Steve [Jackson]…. They said, “We liked your Mortal Combat game. Could you design us a new role-playing game, which we’re going to publish, called Adventure?” I wasn’t so keen on the title, but Ian kept saying, “I want to put an ad that says “Are you ready for… Adventure?” ” So I got started on that one, and that was because they were losing the D&D licence, but six months or so later they looked like picking up the RuneQuest licence, so they kind of cooled off on that.

– Dave Morris, The Grognard Files, episode 45

In the very early days they lost the D&D licence…. They wanted a UK rival to D&D, but then they got the QuestWorld licence, so it’s like, “Ah, forget that thing [Adventure].” And I go, “What? Should I forget the two-hundred pages I’ve written?” “Yeah, yeah. We want you to do some QuestWorld stuff now.”

– Dave Morris, The Grognard Files, episode 44**

It is likely that the loss of the RuneQuest licence in 1984 had a greater direct influence on the decision to proceed with WFRP. It was only after this loss that GW started to publish its own RPGs.

In 1984 Chaosium made a deal with Avalon Hill for the publication of new RuneQuest books. By this time Games Workshop had been working to make RuneQuest successful in the UK for years. They’d not only published the core RuneQuest rules, but also notable supplements like Cults of Prax and Griffin Mountain. At recent Games Days, RuneQuest had been ranked as the #1 RPG in the country. Chaosium’s new and exclusive deal with Avalon Hill suddenly cut Games Workshop out of the loop. GW’s license was revoked and the new Avalon Hill editions quadrupled the game’s cost in England. The Avalon Hill agreement largely crippled the game in England for the next two years and undid a lot of GW’s hard work.

– Shannon Appelcline, Designers & Dragons: The 70’s, p145

In 1985, however, events at TSR did affect the development of WFRP. By this point TSR had slipped into heavy losses, as a result of overexpansion. This led to ructions at TSR in the US and ultimately the departure of Gary Gygax.

I was pretty much boxed out of the running of the company because the two guys, who between them had a controlling interest [Brian and Kevin Blume], thought they could run the company better than I could. I was set up because I could manage. In 1982 Nobody on the West Coast would deal with TSR, but they had me start a new corporation called “Dungeons and Dragons Entertainment.” It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get to be recognized as someone who was for real and not just a civilian, shall we say, in entertainment. Eventually, though, we got the cartoon show going (on CBS) and I had a number of other projects in the works.

While I was out there, though, I heard that the company was in severe financial difficulties and one of the guys, the one I was partnered with, was shopping it on the street in New York. I came back and discovered a number of gross mismanagements in all areas of the company. The bank was foreclosing and we were a million and a half in debt. We eventually got that straightened out, but I kind of got one of my partners kicked out of office [Kevin Blume, who was removed as TSR CEO in 1984]. Then my partners, in retribution for that, sold his shares to someone else [Lorraine Williams]. I tried to block it in court, but in the ensuing legal struggle the judge ruled against me. I lost control of the company, and it was then at that point I just decided to sell out.

– Gary Gygax, interview with GameSpy***

TSR’s UK operations were not insulated from these events.

TSR Inc was changing over senior management and there were all sorts of convulsions and palace-coup-type stuff and it was a particularly distressing time to be working at any senior level in the States, and suddenly that seemed to reflect into a great deal of pressure on TSR UK.

The Americans were casting about for any way they could to increase the profitability of TSR at a time when it was struggling, but at the same time were a little bit ticked off with the UK’s independence. The UK modules were some of their biggest sellers. They didn’t like the fact that it was this crew in Cambridge that they didn’t have their hands on that was doing all this.

– Paul Cockburn, the Grognard Files, episode 9, part 2

TSR got very weird towards the end of my tenure there… ’85ish, because there was a lot of trouble with them running out of money in America and Mr Gygax getting eased out by various factions and the Blumes and the Gygaxes fighting, and then Lorraine Williams arrived and she was going to save the company, and then she decided to get rid of Gary, and it all got very messy in America. It was a bit dramatic at times with the sweeping changes that were happening. Anyway, the UK was told to save money, and the way Don Turnbull (the guy who was running the company at the time) chose to save money was to load as many costs as he could onto Imagine and then shut the magazine down. It must have looked brilliant on paper, but it meant that five of us lost our jobs. We finished issue 30. We were called in and given the white envelopes. We were all redundant….

– Mike Brunton, the Grognard Files Extra

Crucially these events precipitated the departure of most of TSR’s creative personnel in the UK. Jim Bambra, Mike Brunton, Paul Cockburn, Phil Gallagher and Tom Kirby all left to join GW.

So there we were in Nottingham…. Bryan Ansell was already thinking ahead to Warhammer Role Play. He said, “We need more creative staff.” and my answer immediately was: “Just steal the editorial staff from TSR UK!” We reached out to Jim Bambra[,] Phil Gallagher [and] Graeme Morris, and with them, by default, comes Mike [Brunton]. Graeme Morris didn’t want to do it. Phil and Jim said, “Yeah, we’ll come.”

– Paul Cockburn, ibid

The next thing that happened that moved everything on was Tom [Kirby] decided he was going, and he went to work for Games Workshop… and then there was a small expedition mounted by various people to Nottingham and I tagged along… and everyone was offered jobs.

– Mike Brunton, ibid

The new arrivals at GW played a critical role in shaping WFRP. Bambra, Cockburn and Gallagher became parts of the game’s design team. Their relationships also brought in important freelancers, like Carl Sargent. The exodus from TSR proved to be a pivotal moment in WFRP‘s history.

APPENDIX: GW’S D&D DISTRIBUTION AGREEMENT

The circumstances of GW’s distribution exclusivity for D&D are subject to contradictory accounts. Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson have both consistently maintained that a three-year deal was agreed when they made their first order for D&D. Since GW first advertised D&D for sale in Owl and Weasel 6 (July 1975), that implies the deal ran approximately from July 1975 to July 1978.

Livingstone has also stated that he and Jackson met with Gary Gygax in the UK when the deal expired. I have found no primary sources that date this meeting. However, Jon Peterson (Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, p172) dates Gygax’s first visit to the UK to 1979. That implies a somewhat surprising, though certainly not impossible, gap between the expiry of the exclusivity contract and the follow-up discussions.

An alternative possibility is that the distribution agreement was signed at GenCon IX in August 1976.

1976: … Gen Con IX was coming up in the States, the premiere convention for fantasy and science fiction gaming in the world. They had to get there, meet Gary Gygax and the rest of the D&D guys, firm up that vital relationship. To try to sign up all the fledgling US role-playing games companies. It took about 3 months to get to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin for the Con, but they got there in the end. Deals were struck, games were played, beer and burgers consumed, relationships established.

– Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, pre-publication excerpt from Dice Men: Games Workshop 1975 to 1985

Steve and I spent [Saturday] checking out new games with a view to importing some of them and obviously spent a lot of time with all the members of TSR to whom go our thanks for putting themselves out for use despite the time constraints of the Con. Special thanks go to Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz for the guided tours and introduction to the Next Door Pub!

– Ian Livingstone, Owl and Weasel 18 (September 1976)

Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson: Two of the three founders of Games Workshop and the two editors of Owl & Weasel (later transitioned to White Dwarf magazine). Here I was escorting them about Lake Geneva, telling jokes (a fish story, one of them), answering questions and otherwise serving their needs. We also had a great time at the Gargoyle Restaurant (not far up Broad from the con and where we held the Strategist’s Club dinner which I oversaw for seating and menu via interaction with the the Gargoyle’s management and kitchen crew–pretty easy with only two main selections: chicken breast or sirloin steak–but it did keep me running until one of the two, whether Ian or Steve I cannot now recall, quipped, “Hey Rob. When are you going to eat?”); and we also introduced them to the Next Door Pub (the best pizza anywhere). At their request several of us stalwarts gathered on Saturday to take a picture together as Ian and Steve had to depart the con early Sunday. Great chaps all told and a boon for the advancement of TSR products and D&D role-playing in Britain in the near future.

– Rob Kuntz, EN World

If the deal had been signed at GenCon IX, that would entail that a three-year contact period would end in August 1979, which would fit closely with Peterson’s timing of Gygax’s visit. However, no first-hand source dates the agreement to this time, and it would contradict the explicit account of Livingstone and Jackson.

Another variant account of the distribution contract came from Gygax himself.

The initial expansion into Europe, that into the UK, occurred while I was still in effective charge of things at TSR. I went to England and interviewed a number of candidates for exclusive distributor status there. In the end, and much against the advice of the consultant TSR had hired, I selected Games Workshop, for I was convinced that Ian Livingston [sic] and Steve Jackson were dedicated gamers and knew their market. I liked them, as a matter of fact, so GW was given the exclusive, and that proved to be a good thing. After that we went on to the Continent, where a couple of other prospects for distribution there were interviewed. This part of my trip was less successful….

Ian and Steve spoke to me at length about their market, the resistance to the price of imported game products and I listened and agreed. Thus, they were granted a license to produce TSR products in the UK, even print their own material unique to the UK. The lower cost of products then brought greater demand….

– Gary Gygax, ‘The Ultimate Interview with Gary Gygax’, Dungeons.it

According to Peterson’s timing, Gygax’s account would mean that the agreement with GW was signed in 1979. This, however, is too late. TSR was already directly distributing D&D in the UK by 1980. Unless Peterson’s date is incorrect, Gygax appears to be conflating the initial distribution agreement with the later merger discussions (which Gygax discusses in the same context).

The list of alternative dates has still not been exhausted. Different Worlds 8 reported that the agreement came to an end around June-July 1980.

Games Workshop (White Dwarf‘s publishers) lost their exclusive distributorship for TSR Hobbies in England. Possible riposte GW could strip TSR of their US WD distributorship. There seems to be a chance that GW might come out with their own FRP game…they’re at work now on a book of monsters.

– ‘Letter from Gigi’, Different Worlds 8 (June/July 1980)

This might entail that the original agreement had been extended, or it might simply refer to the end of a de facto arrangement. Since this source is not one of the participants, it is less reliable.

The most credible reconstruction of events in my opinion is that the exclusive distribution arrangement ran from 1975 to 1978. Subsequently there may have been a period of de facto exclusivity, but by 1980 GW was no longer TSR’s sole UK distributor for D&D.

FOOTNOTEs

* Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear DevastationDoctor Who: The Game of Time and SpaceValley of the Four WindsWarlock: The Game of Duelling Wizards (1980); Spacefarers (1981); Judge Dredd (1982); Battlecars, Calamity!TalismanWFB1 (1983); Golden Heroes, WFB2 (1984); Judge Dredd: the Role-Playing Game, Warrior Knights, (1985); The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and WFRP1 (1986).

** The exact timing of Morris’ work on Adventure is not clear, but a date of 1980-1981 seems most likely. Mortal Combat was published in 1979. QuestWorld was first mentioned in October 1981 (in Wyrms Footnotes 13). GW started printing RQ2 in March 1982 (according to White Dwarf 29).

*** For a more honest appraisal of these events, see Jon Peterson, Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons, pp223-310.

CHRONOLOGY

The following chart summarises the chronology of this post relative to others in this section of ‘The WFRP Story’.

The next post in this series discusses the Regiments of Renown.

Title image used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

5 thoughts on “THE WFRP STORY XXVII: RIPPLES

  1. More excellence, as ever Gideon. I would be interested to know what your take is (or what Applecline thinks, as I don’t have his series of books) about GW re-energizing their link with Chaosium post-1984 and putting out those nifty hardback editions of CoC, Stormbringer and especially 3e Runequest after WFRP had appeared.

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    1. You’re right that GW did reacquire the RuneQuest licence. From 1986 GW produced hardback third editions of three Chaosium games: Call of Cthulhu (1986), RuneQuest (1987) and Stormbringer (1987). Subsequently GW also released a softback version of RuneQuest (1989). GW’s support for these games petered out fairly quickly, however.

      I can’t recall seeing any analysis of this or any explanation by the people involved. I can suggest some possibilities, though. It may be that the Chaosium licence was negotiated by Paul Cockburn, who was friends with Greg Stafford and joined GW shortly before GW announced the new hardbacks. When Paul left GW, and the focus generally shifted away from RPGs, GW’s interest in the Chaosium games waned.

      Alternatively Bryan Ansell may have initially been more open to licensed games, and less focused on Warhammer, than was the case later. Citadel was certainly still interested in miniatures licences at the time. For example, it held a D&D/AD&D miniatures licence from 1985 to 1987. That said, Ansell’s interest in in-house games goes all the way back to 1980 and the Laserburn draft, so this idea seems to me less likely. Perhaps licences were just a stopgap until in-house games were sufficiently developed.

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      1. I asked Paul Cockburn about this. This was his reply:

        “During my first year at GW, with a brief to beef the product line, Bryan [Ansell] came to me with a few deals he was working on. West End Games were one potential partner, and so was Chaosium…. Greg [Stafford] and I were fast mates, so that was an easy deal to get across the line.

        Bryan’s obsession at the time was hardback books for all rpg game products. He wanted the spines for display purposes. So, I repackaged various RQ product into HB volumes, and we did Stormbringer too. Lots of new product was discussed [but] never materialised.

        This is all during Bryan’s roleplaying interest days, which didn’t last past the launch of WFRP. Nothing made money like toy soldiers. 40k became the be-all and end-all…”

        It seems, therefore, the initiative was Ansell’s, after all. (The WEG collaboration yielded the GW hardbacks of Paranoia first (1986) and second (1987) editions.) So for a short period Ansell had a real interest in publishing RPGs at GW, and the RQ hardbacks were a result of that. His realisation that RPGs were not profitable enough and decision to focus on miniatures wargames, instead, apparently came a little later.

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  2. Thanks, that’s very interesting that these were new deals brokered under Ansell; I don’t know how long GW had kept their boxed versions of CoC2 and RQ2 in print and I didn’t know that there was a gap between that agreement and the new one in 86 onwards (I can’t recall there being any commentary in WD in that period, which occasionally carried RQ material through those years). I guess Ansell wasn’t worried about cannibalising the potential GW market since WFRP was very distinctively tied into the developing Warhammer World setting whereas RQ3 was the “generic FRP game version” where the core rules (except magic) had been decoupled from Glorantha, hence the “fantasy earth” supplements such as Land of Ninja (which itself has a complicated history to do with Charrette’s relationship with FGU).
    Ultimately the financials told, especially after the explosive growth of 40K and they decided to move away from RPGs, with the sop of Flame continuing WFRP on a shoestring. But it is really remarkable how much GW did in that 86-88 period; not just the massive expansion of Warhammer games and other original GW product, but the WEG/Chaosium reprints which did get some support (I have a soft spot for The Madcap Laughs for Stormbringer) not to mention a hatful of boardgames (Fury of Dracula, Rogue Trooper, Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, Blood Royale, Chainsaw Warrior, Block Mania and probably more I’ve forgotten). Aside from the closure of TSR UK and personnel transfers benefiting GW, the breadth and depth of Ansell’s ambition in the period is striking.

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    1. GW sold its version of RQ2 until 1984. The last advert for it was in WD51 (March 1984). By WD60 (December 1984) Avalon Hill’s RQ3 was being advertised, instead.

      GW’s CoC licence lasted longer. GW was still advertising the UK printing of CoC2 in WD68 (August 1985). The CoC licence may therefore have run all the way through to the CoC3 hardback, first mentioned in WD77 (May 1986).

      I have to agree with your statement that “the breadth and depth of Ansell’s ambition in the period is striking” (to which I’d add admiration for the output of the creative staff working at GW at the time). Although Ansell is understandably seen as having killed off RPGs at GW, he did briefly drive a burst of RPG activity first, of which WFRP is probably the major legacy.

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