INTERVIEW WITH PAUL COCKBURN, PART ONE

Paul Cockburn is a name well known to UK gamers of the 1980s for his work at TSR and Games Workshop. He very kindly agreed to be interviewed for this blog and share his memories of working on WFRP‘s first edition. It was a great pleasure chatting with him. His energy and enthusiasm really made the interview, and I’d like to express my sincere thanks and appreciation to him for giving up his time so freely and putting so much effort into this.

Hi, Paul. Thanks for speaking with me about your time working on WFRP.

Thanks for asking me. This crops up every now and then, with people interested in those halcyon 80s days. It’s fun to play the nostalgia game.

How did you come to be involved with WFRP?

TL:DR version. I had been editor of White Dwarf’s smaller cousin, Imagine magazine, for TSR UK until that got folded. I freelanced for a spell, self-published GameMaster Publications, and so on. I had an interview with GW that went nowhere, but then Ian Livingstone introduced me to Bryan Ansell and I was hired to work in Nottingham as ‘Publications Manager’. There was a lot of product being worked on at the Design Studio by the likes of Rick Priestley, Jervis Johnson, Richard Halliwell, etc, and one of those products was a part-formed WFRP. I joined in, what, April ’86? The idea was that we’d have WFRP on the presses by September…

What was Bryan Ansell’s plan for WFRP?

BA wanted roleplaying product alongside the battle stuff at the time, and so had already considered what this might be. In retrospect, he wanted miniatures-based rpg, like AD&D 4e was later, based on the existing Warhammer setting. WFRP’s genesis lay in stuff that had been seeded in Warhammer Battle, and there was a ‘draft’ of sorts, that was mostly a collection of ideas and stuff ‘ported’ across from WFB. Originally, I was supposed to hammer this into shape, but I got side-tracked over the drama of the guys who created White Dwarf in London all leaving instead of coming up to Nottingham. So, I had to find bodies to do the work.

There was something I’d characterise as a misunderstanding in how Bryan’s view of a separate RPG would work. BA is all about miniatures – Citadel took over GW, not the other way around. What that existing draft did was throw more roleplaying layers over WFB; it wasn’t a game in its own right. At the same time, WFRP was going to be in stores for Christmas come hell or high water, so…

You are credited as the editor of the WFRP1 rulebook. What did your work involve?

I’d liken my role to being more like a film producer than a director. I tried to help the guys create this thing out of next-to-nothing, and to keep the production side of the gig off their desks. Like I say, I was yanked in to keep White Dwarf running, so I wasn’t as hands on as you’d think.

My main task was to find bodies to create product. I argued from the outset that not only would WFRP have to be a complete game, it would need support material really soon after launch, especially campaign material. I knew Graeme Davis from having commissioned his work several times for Imagine. He turned up barely a month after I did. Phil [Gallagher] had helped me out with GameMaster Publications, so we were in touch. He remembers that he called to see if there were any jobs at GW after Tom Kirby left TSR (joining GW! It was a shock to me to see him in the Studio!). Bryan hired him, Jim Bambra and Mike Brunton, so we basically recreated TSR (UK) in Nottingham! Phil and Jim had already proven themselves writing the UK series of modules for AD&D at TSR, so I knew they’d get some great stuff together. I was also sifting through freelance guys, to see who could create product to deepen the WFRP line fast.

Editorially, I pushed for WFRP to be more Renaissance than Medieval, to make it more distinctive from what was going on elsewhere. Fewer dungeons and castles, more urban noir. I pushed for the Empire to have electors, so we could pull in politics. Michael Moorcock’s influence is all over Warhammer, but in this specific instance it’s not Elric, it’s Warhound & The World’s Pain which I riffed off (I geek off to the Thirty Years War). I also probably pissed people off for wanting it to be more ‘adult’ and less splurgle-chaos-spikey, which (a) did me no favours and (b) shows how much I know.

I also insisted it have a bare bones magic system. As I say, WFRP was a tight deadline job, and there was an enormous amount to do. Though there was some magic in the draft, courtesy of WFB, it wasn’t a playable system. Jim, in particular, didn’t think we had time to craft a magic system within the scope of a ’son of WFB’ game, but I felt we had to have something, and pushed hard on that, knowing we could put things right in the planned Realms of Sorcery supplement. Ooops.

Of course, Realms of Sorcery would not see the light of day until more than ten years later. What happened?

All the way through the Magic chapter of WFRP, we teased RoS, and there was the intent to get into that in early ’87. WFRP was obviously rushed, and we had to take more time to get RoS right, but then it went onto the back burner, then off the stove altogether. We’ll come back to this shortly, I’m sure, but even in ’87 Bryan was losing faith and interest in WFRP, and 40k was going to be The Thing. Various people took a stab at RoS; Ken Rolston, who was with us for an intense period of time, put something together, but it wasn’t quite right tonally. By ’89, I was gone, and the broad product line concept was buried. What happened after that, others can tell.

What memories do you have of the development of WFRP1?

That it was hard work. This thing came to life in a terrifyingly short period of time. I’ve seen Graeme and Phil talk about how the thing more or less existed in draft form, but I think they do themselves a disservice. There were ideas, but there was no product.

What was the WFRP draft like when you arrived?

It was in a very fluid state, to my mind. Richard Halliwell had written quite a bit of stuff, and Bryan and Rick Priestley had chipped in ideas. More importantly, those ideas kept arriving as first Graeme, and then the other lads got to work on the product. I wouldn’t call it a draft, from memory, but there were outline principles. I recall you could see where they were thinking about the careers system, for example, drawn from previously published bits and other ideas, but more kept arriving. Character progression as we’d understand it in an rpg setting was completely missing; we sort of grafted that onto the careers system. I’ve heard that part of the game described as ‘confusing’ and I wouldn’t disagree. You’d never willingly create a role-playing product that way, and not in four months!

Was there any tension between the skirmish wargaming perspective of people like Bryan Ansell and Rick Priestley and the role-playing perspective of the new arrivals?

It was just not clear to any of us what the final product was to be all about. Rick was fine, and was already/soon peeling off to do 40k. Richard H wasn’t, as I recall, that interested in doing any more work on it; he was busting with new ideas. Still, if you view WFRP though the lens of it having started as a possible supplement to WFB, but then developing into an out-and-out rpg, you can see where its development was flawed. Everyone got on just fine; I worked brilliantly with Rick and Jervis on other products; they are canny lads. But Bryan wanted something different, something we never grasped. He would chip in individual thoughts, but no real strategic direction. That was fine – we had our brief and the guys were working hard to craft something that would work. But whatever Bryan had in mind, WFRP wasn’t it.

Once it came out, it soon became apparent to Bryan that WFRP would not drive sales of miniatures anything like WFB did. Paper products didn’t interest him all that much, unless they drove miniature sales. He would say repeatedly how we would never make money from paper products. Note how 40k was never anything other than a battle game, and became much more successful in that environment.

What design challenges did you face?

Here’s what I think, with the benefit of hindsight. WFB is a PvP game, where interesting army design, well-played on the battlefield with zillions of miniatures is the key. WFRP is an rpg, where the emphasis is on story-telling, party cooperation, connected adventures and character progress. A game based on a wargame has to go through massive restructuring to be a successful rpg – look at how far D&D moved from its wargame roots.

So, we didn’t need scores of careers, we needed a solid core which contained good character progression. The tiered careers (or whatever we called ‘em) was a late effort to make that happen. The skills system was developed separately; it didn’t integrate well with the careers. Above all else, a battle game is designed for one side to defeat the other, and it doesn’t matter which. You kill off player characters like that, you don’t have a game at all. Some of the play-testing showed WFRP was massively deadly to PCs.

What did you think of the one-off skills system? It is not very suited to an RPG and seems like a wargame legacy.

It was. Skills were a bloody nightmare. On the one hand, we were following the brief and the careers system, adding in the development aspect. How, then, did that sit alongside skills, except where those were inherently part of a career? I personally don’t find the solutions all that elegant.

Why were changes made to attributes (switching from 1-10 to 1-100, adding Dexterity and Fellowship)?

I can’t remember if this was down to any one individual, but it was soon very clear an rpg needed way more stat flexibility than WFB. It was an easy decision to make, since the thought was always there that a ‘3’ in WFB was ’30’ in WFRP terms, so it wouldn’t jar. Not everyone was in love with d100 resolution, and this was before the advantages of d20 were evident. In reality, the attributes in the two games (WFB and WFRP) were very different systems for obvious reasons, but we didn’t establish enough clear water. The same with adding extra stats. We needed Dex and Fellowship to make any sense of what we were doing.

What did you learn from the playtests?

We were all decently happy that combat etc was fine, but deadly. I’ve been reminded that Jervis came up with the Fate Point system, a necessary but inelegant patch. I think playtests made me more certain we had to have some kind of magic system. But they didn’t and couldn’t show the flaws in character advancement. You would never design an rpg that way, unless you were in the situation we were in.

The interview is continued in part two, which discusses The Enemy Within, Tetsubo and more.

Title art by Rodney Matthews. Used without permission. No challenge intended to the rights holders.

28 thoughts on “INTERVIEW WITH PAUL COCKBURN, PART ONE

  1. Another great insight. It’s still remarkable how much coincidence or randomness led to the RPG that we all love.
    One question: what aspect is meant by the evident advantages of the D20? The roll above mechanic? Or the fact that you just have one die?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, absolutely. Just reading the first edition of WFRP makes it abundantly clear how it wasn’t designed with a few well-aligned concepts in mind, but with a mishmash of ideas bolted onto each other, with mixed success. As Paul says, the skill system is quite binary and felt random to me already at 14. However, I think Paul underestimates the novelty of the career system, even as uneven and unfinished it was in 1ed. WFRP had a very punk feel to it, some sort of spirit that is hard to reproduce. The post-medieval touch (inspired by the 30 years war, something I’ve long assumed), the ambition to do something new when it came to rules, the bolt-on skill (and magic) system, the generally gritty aesthetic, etc. This kind of thing isn’t made the same way anymore – games are made to fit a single aesthetic, or to play out some idea of a core mechanic, or one clean concept.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I’m not sure I buy into the idea of the inherent advantages of D20 either. It lacks granularity and ends up being this rather odd 20 point window with two stacks (big if you level up enough) of numbers on each side which can end up being rather skewed. Games like Pathfinder still end up using all the other dice for things like damage rolls anyway.
      I’m not making an argument for D100 being superior, I think it just trades off some advantages for some disadvantages.
      D20 seemed to get a lot of momentum through the 90s and spread to so many other RPGs (the most popular ones at that), which in turn meant it was easier for players to move from one game to another if a large of the mechanics was already known. This isn’t an inherent advantage though, more of a strategic one.

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    3. Another point that’s striking from Paul’s comments is how far WFRP and WFB were heading in different directions from the start: Thirty-Years-War politics and urban noir versus Chaos spiky death bits.

      On the D20 issue, I personally quite like that D20s make arithmetic easier and quicker than D100s, and I very rarely care about increments of less than 5%.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. The one thing that made me prefer the D100 to D20 for resolution is that I really like the elegance of criticals-on-doubles.

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        1. If with a D100 you allow critical hits on successful doubles and critical fumbles on failed doubles, the odds of one of either event is 1 in 10. The same odds can be replicated on a D20 with a critical-hits-on-1-and-fumbles-on-20 rule. Of course, this means equal probabilities of critical hits and fumbles for all characters, whereas the critical-hits-and-fumbles-on-doubles rules skews the split based on WS.

          My problem is that this is too high a probability for critical hits and fumbles. A 1 in 10 chance means that in a four-versus-four combat, someone is likely to get a critical hit or fumble every round. A probabilty of 1% for a critical hit and 1% for a critical fumble means one such event is likely in 5 rounds.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Quite. Pendragon handles it fairly elegantly by a crit if you roll exactly your skill number (it uses a Blackjack-like mechanic for opposed roll where you want to roll under your skill but as high as possible) and a fumble on 20. (Though it gets a bit wonky when your skill goes above 20, which is often the case in Pendragon.)

            I hear you about the frequency of exceptional rolls. To me that’s a feature rather than a bug, I like having them be fairly frequent – then again, in the homebrew system I run, crits aren’t necessarily fight-endingly decisive.

            Liked by 2 people

      2. Actually there wouldn’t be a big difficulty dividing 1e/2e/4e stats by 5 and roling a D20 instead. Well in 4e you’d need to simplify the calculation of SLs…

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          1. You’re right, even dividing the difference between role and skill by 2 should not be an extreme burden.
            I’ll stop posting on D20s, though. This steers away from the more interesting topics from the interview.

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          2. I thought the fast SL option should have just been the standard. Then use the saved space for something else.

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    4. That was a clumsy thing for me to have said, because ‘evident’ isn’t… ummm… obvious. I can’t recall who pushed this, but from my memory we moved d10 to d100, for reasons I cover; then to d20. Again, I don’t recall this process, but I wouldn’t have fought it. The thing with d100 is that 90% of the time you’re rolling the ‘unit’ dice for no good reason. It’s possible that wargamers, wanting to keep extraneous dice off the table, made this point.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Great trip down memory lane! Imagine how good WFRP could have been if it had been the time to develop properly without tabletop roots.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. An interesting read, but a couple of things stuck out for me.

    The first is that I’m not surprised by the development difficulties. A lot of my favourite creative works, music, film, even technology, seem to have difficult origins. I’ll quite often read about the background of my favourite albums to discover they came from development hell. The old saying of adversity is the mother of invention probably has a lot of examples.

    The second is that I’m quite surprised by the criticism of the career system. It was definitely rough around the edges in 1st ed, but overall, I would say it’s the most unique aspect of the game’s mechanics and it fits in extremely well with the setting and the tone the game goes for. In D&D the player choose an archetype that has a set of abilities suited to a chosen playstyle while adventuring. WFRP rather takes a character with a set of abilities from a normal job that must then be applied by the player to scenarios (that may or may not be a classic adventure).

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    1. The career system is the main DNA of the WFRP rules in my view. That and the tone of TEW are the foundation of what makes it great for me.
      In general, 2e and 4e did not revolutionize the system. So the fundamentals were right in 1e.

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      1. The career system has great character, and it was different, for sure. But it didn’t scale well, especially in its earliest incarnations. How were you going to ‘go up levels’ in some of those careers? That’s what I think it lacked, because we had to rush things to get it in at all.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. True, in the end you had a few go-to advanced carreers, where everyone wanted to go. But still 2e/4e worked on improving this. They did not throw away the concept. I know too little about 3e, to say anything about it.

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          1. I agree with that. I think the career system was clunky in 1st ed, but the concept seemed to fit so well. As Zisse says, 2nd and 4th fixed a lot (but I wouldn’t say all) of these problems.

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            1. I remember that I had problems to understand how the carrier system was intended to work (I do not mean mechanically, but in the role play implications) up to the moment I’ve read “Practice Makes Perfect: Careers in WFRP” originally published in WD #90.

              From that moment, I’ve understood how to include it within the role play and how it would enrich it so much… I since perceive it being one of the best system possible. It is also a perfect way for the players “to feel” the society.

              In that aspect, I would say that I am not sure I like WFRP4 career system. Most set levels seems artificial.

              I, for one, would had kept WFRP1 careers system, with one adaptation of WFRP4: each career would had 3 sub-levels, which correspond well with the Early Modern Society:

              base l. 1 : apprentice/student/squire/soldier/initiate/&c. [= wizard’s apprentice]
              base l. 2 : journeyman/bachelor/knight/sergeant/confirmed/&c. [= wizard level 1]
              base l. 3 : master/doctor/banneret/captain/priest/&c. [= wizard level 2]

              Advanced careers would also have those three level
              advanced l. 1 : advanced student/hierokeryx/&c. [= wizard level 3]
              advanced l. 2 : advanced bachelor/daduchos/&c. [= wizard level 4]
              advanced l. 3 : advanced doctor/hierophant/&c. [= ROS’s wizard level 5]

              (Such advanced careers could be used for students on battle magic, theology, law and medicine and for many others, especially for positions of power or of authority such as baron, viscount, count).

              But I would still have movements between careers as they are in WFRP1. The sublevel would be just steps of complexion of a same career.

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  4. I prefer d100 to d20, partly just because of the way WFRP overloads the roll (reversing the digits to find hit location), and partly because it’s more fun and exciting to make your roll by just 1 percentile… or to miss it by that margin. 🙂

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    1. Unfortunately reversing the digits messes up the probabilities of hit locations, so that they’re not evenly distributed.

      Also, in the excitement of hitting something players in my experience tend to forget to calculate hit location and have to roll it separately, anyway. Either that, or they’re just gaming the system!

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      1. The former could be a blessing in disguise though. I can’t quite articulate it without paragraphs and paragraphs of waffle, but depending on which reversed numbers end up assigned to which location, this method can reflect the inexperienced low WS fighter mostly landing blows on extremities. An even distribution may not be the ideal design.

        As I remember the WFRP hit chart assigns hit locations quite broadly and doesn’t really achieve this, but I do think the problem is in the chart and not the dice swapping itself.

        Potentials for hacking include fussing the chart so smaller ranges of more varied numbers become “main hand hit”, “off hand hit” etc., or introducing a “called shot” mechanic of some sort for starting characters who want to try for a specific location. (There may already be something like that there; I haven’t played WFRP in about four years now, and the memory cheats.)

        Great interview, by the way. It’s always nice to have context for why a game is like it is.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think the hit location table can be revised to reduce the probability distortions to tolerable levels, but I don’t think it can remove them altogether. Even so, it would need to be a more complicated table with a large number of noncontiguous entries.

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          1. I agree, and that has its own problems with being a faff to read and use on the fly. “Swap the dice!” has merit as a simple rule that a player can implement without any learning or sums…

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