Saturday, 3 August 2013

Imagine: An Interview with Paul Cockburn

From White Dwarf 97
Change is inevitable and inexorable. It is unavoidable and sometimes unforgiving. But when speaking on this most subjective of topics, the great American motivational speaker and author, Denis Waitley, had this to say: "You must welcome change as the rule but not as your ruler." 
Change was afoot in the world of fantasy gaming in the mid nineteen eighties. Dungeons and Dragons, the most influential and far reaching game of its type, ever, was passing through its 3rd revision. In Britain, Games Workshop, the incredibly successful publishing and merchandising company, was undergoing a period of flux. Two of its founders, Steven Jackson and Ian Livingstone, had made themselves household names with the phenomenally received Fighting Fantasy books and needed to pass the running of their company to somebody else. In the end, their General Manager, Bryan Ansell of Asgard, and later Citadel Miniatures, fame bought Games Workshop outright and sensing that the tide was about to turn against the age of role-playing, sought to expand his company through wargames and the metal miniatures that went alongside them. Games Workshop had been based in London for over ten years. It had its own team, with their own contacts and freelancers, in the heart of the capital. But Citadel Miniatures was based in Nottingham, and the new owner was convinced that everything under the new GW brand needed to come out of that Midland city. 
Imagine, the UK based Dungeons and Dragons magazine, had folded in 1985 after 30 odd issues. The magazine's remit had been to take on White Dwarf as the source of infomation and opinion about all things gaming, focusing on official D&D and AD&D rules releases. And through the years between 1983 and 1985, the magazine had published a wide range of different materials, most notably (in fantasy gaming) the Pelinore game setting. Neil Gaiman, the influential author, wrote film reviews for the magazine, a later published his first short story within its pages - Featherquest. The editor of this magazine was one Paul Cockburn. After trying his hand at an independent gaming magazine called Game Master, he was out of a job and a series of events, discussed below by the good man himself, found him put in charge of the mighty White Dwarf itself and given the inenviable task of moving the established magazine (and its properties and staff) many, many miles to the north of the country.
What follows is his story. A story of change. And resistance to change. The story of the 3rd editor of White Dwarf (after Ian Livingstone and Ian Marsh) who witnessed the biggest change in GW history.
RoC80s: Tell us about how you got into fantasy gaming/roleplaying in the first place and how this lead to working in the industry?
PC: I'd always played games as a kid, and I recall from some of those that me and my mates always used to 'roleplay' even if that isn't what we called it, and even if there were no rulebooks, dice or minis involved! But then I went along to one of the old London Games Days - this would be in 1981 or 1982. I bought a copy of Basic D&D, and we played it that night. With no-one to guide us, it was a completely different beast to anything I played since! And then I think there was an ad in the paper from TSR UK, who were in The Mill in Cambridge, for an editor for their new magazine, Imagine. I went up, interviewed, and though I didn't get the job, they took me on as Assistant Editor. Even before the first issue, the original editor was fired, so then I was in the hot seat! We just made everything up as we went along, determined only that we would try and muscle in on White Dwarf's circulation numbers.
RoC80s: Who was at TSR at the time you began working there?
PC: There was a photo kicking around on Facebook not that long ago, and a few of us were trying to remember everyone! The late Don Turnbull was in charge, and Tom Kirby, who went over to GW very shortly after I did, and who bought GW some time after I left, was the Carter to his Regan. The editorial team had Graeme Morris (the one I couldn't poach), Phil Gallagher (who took over my portfolio at GW when I left, and did pretty well in the USA), Jim Bambra and Mike Brunton, who followed me to the WD chair. Keith Thompson arrived to have editorial oversight, and Kim Daniel was editorial assistant, while Phil Kaye was graphics and art dude. The sales people and almost everyone there were decent people. I was genuinely sorry to leave The Mill when I was made redundant.
Issue 2 of Imagine
RoC80s: How did you come to work for GW? Were you headhunted? Did you apply for a position?
PC: I might not remember this all perfectly, but after Imagine was closed down (a juicy story in its own right), I played around with my own magazine for a while (GamesMaster Publications), and at some point, after a conversation with Ian Livingstone, I was 'interviewed' for a position-that-didn't-exist. Some while later, I spoke with Ian again, and he asked why I hadn't joined GW. I told him, and he suggested maybe he had put me in touch with the wrong person. I was interviewed by Bryan Ansell, and they made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
RoC80s: Tell us more about Imagine magazine. Was there an ethos other than 'muscle in' on White Dwarf? And what was the 'juicy' ending that you hinted at?
PC: Hmm... well, Imagine was going to be a British Dragon magazine, according to plan. Don wanted to create product in the UK, and he wanted a magazine. So, we had the UK series of AD&D modules, and Imagine. I think the point was that Don was a real contemporary of Ian Livingstone and Steve (UK) Jackson and wanted their level of kudos. So, we tried to make Imagine bigger and better, and since we had D&D, how could we go wrong? We'd clawed up to about half WD's circulation by the time we closed. Basically, the UK operation really couldn't sustain all this activity, and there was a level of... ummm... creative accounting when the time came, that pushed all the losses onto the magazine (or so I was told at the time by a very unhappy accounts lady). Don didn't last too long after that - he'd blown it with the powers that be in the USA, but by then the magazine was gone. A shame. I thought we were nailing it a lot of the time in the year before we closed.
Roc80s: You were working for GW doing the (still) controversial  move from London to Nottingham. What are your recollections about this time?
PC: Ah... now that was all a bit rubbish. Let me see. Day 1 of my new time at GW, and only 10% moved from Cambridge to Nottingham, BA sent me to London with a brief to move White Dwarf up to Nottingham. I was to audit all the gear, speak to someone about shifting it all to the Design Studio, and see what staff were willing to move. The crew on WD, well, only one of them was really willing to entertain the idea, and I think we all knew I'd gone there with a 'move or leave' offer. I'd always got on well with the likes of Paul Mason and Ian Marsh, but this wasn't the best conversation we ever had. So, I ended up having to edit White Dwarf because we had no staff! I poached the editorial team from TSR to come join us. I've no real view on whether closing all the London operation was a good thing or not - it was just going to happen. Bryan and Citadel were now in charge, and that meant Nottingham.
RoC80s: Your were Editor of White Dwarf from issue 78 to 83. What did the job involve at that time?
PC: Ha! Did I only do five? I really didn't want the gig, and if it shows in those issues, I apologise to all who had to read it. It was already clear that content was going to change. All non-GW product was going to be phased out, the focus was going to be on miniatures and painting, and WD was on its way to being a GW catalogue. I really didn't want that, and I think already you could see the signs that I was just not a GW kinda guy. I believe in gaming and a wider hobby, not just Warhammer and all that. I hired Mike Brunton from TSR to take over from me, so he really got the short end of the stick. What did it involve? A lot of talking about painted miniatures, and the photography thereof. We had some drama around reviews of other products - GW still had partnerships going with the likes of Chaosium and West End Games, so we featured their stuff. But Bryan had a plan I really hadn't bought into, and so I really was just a caretaker for WD after the move up from London.
Paul was responsible for several classic issues, including the iconic WD 79
RoC80s: Could you expand on the dramas you had around the reviews in White Dwarf?
PC: I don't have clear memories on all this, but I had a few scraps with Bryan over policy. And by the time I handed WD on, it was clear things were heading in a direction that would see the magazine only feature GW product. Along the way, we had a guest over from the USA, and we then proceeded to trash a product that he had written, in a WD review, pretty much while he was in the building. Stuff like that just showed we couldn't sustain a level of independent editorial policy. Everything was political.
RoC80s: Apart from editing the magazine, what other roles did you have during your time at GW.
PC: I'd gone up there to take on a wider editorial role, because there were big publishing plans. Warhammer (presumably 3rd edition-Orlygg) was in its early drafting stages, and then the TSR boys started work on WFRP, and Rick Priestley got started on 40k. We published Blood Bowl and loads of other cool games, some great hardback Runequest stuff, and so on. That's what I wanted to do, and the Publishing Manager thing was great for me. But I got involved in more and more battles, and then get side-lined onto a Special Projects department of one. I was pretty much out of the door from then on.
RoC80s: Many people that I have interviewed about life in the Design Studio have had very positive things to say about there time there. Is this a view that you share?
PC: Nah, not really. I mean, we had some excellent days, and produced some ace product (as well as some dross), but there was a management ethos there that was just moronic as far as I was concerned. I didn't like the strategy the company was following, but that wasn't really my biz. All my battles were fought around the games we published. I'm sure a lot of people who knew me then have memories of me being an arrogant, opinionated prick, and they may not be 100% wrong. I wanted to lead the editorial arm of the most creative games publisher there could possible be. Instead it was snotlings and goblins and all that. Apologies to anyone reading this who loved or loves their Warhammer or their 40k, but I hated them then, and I've ignored them since. I live in NZ now, and there is a GW store in my local city. I look through the door now and then and it just makes me feel old. It doesn't feel like anything ever moved on. I did - I sold what was left of my soul to the marketing profession. I only keep in touch with a very small number of people from those days, but I am glad I met the people I did in the games industry. I still play a lot of stuff, and I'm grateful that I saw that newspaper ad. It probably didn't do me a fantastic lot of good, career-wise, but I wanted to be in publishing, and I loved games. This particular chapter just didn't play out well, I guess.
RoC80s: You mentioned a dislike for Warhammer and Rogue trader, but mentioned other games more positively. What exactly was your contribution to the many games published during your time at GW?
PC: I had editorial oversight on quite a few things at the start. I tossed some ideas into WFRP, like how the Empire was set up, and edited Warhammer pretty hard. 40k, no, that's not me at all, but Blood Bowl has my editing stamp. I also interfered with a few of the boardgames, most notably Blood Royale, which may not have been my finest hour. Bits and pieces of my writing appear in a few products from that era, but I don't tend to have writing credits... I was just the guy in charge of that department. Kinda. Except that 'in charge' was always a bit of an odd concept. GW at that time ran under the Darwinian management philosophy.
And so the story ends. I am sure that you will join me in thanking Paul in giving up his time to be interviewed by this blog. After all, it cannot be easy to regurgitate memories for 25 years since when you are living a different life on the other side of the planet. I for one found his story fascinating, and learnt a great deal about the origins of Bryan Ansell's GW and the impact he had on the direction of British Fantasy gaming. 
I began this article with a quote. Denis Waitley's; "You must welcome change as a rule but not as your ruler." Certainly a view that Paul took in his approach to the industry. He clearly was (and is undoubtably still) a man not ruled by change. 
Have you been inspired by something you have read here today. Do you have an opinion on Imagine Magazine? Were you a reader, or indeed, a contributor? Or the shift in gear that GW took from roleplay to in house wargaming? If so, please share what you know below. 
Don't be scared.
The Realm don't bite!


  1. That's interesting about Tom Kirby; the Games Workshop site says that he "worked for six years for a distributor of fantasy games" but doesn't say it was TSR UK.

    1. Really? That is funny. Yes, he was Don Turnbull's oppo; left TSR to join GW about the time I joined.

    2. How strange. Though TSR UK has not existed for years, perhaps this could be the reason. Only old schoolers like ourselves are likely to remember what the company was responsible for.

    3. Yes, I imagine the reason the company is not mentioned by name is because TSR is long gone, but one never knows with GW!

  2. An other great interview! It's nice to hear different views of the old days.

  3. I've heard from Phil Gallagher (also soon to be a feature of one of these, I'm told), who has suggested he called me to suggest the TSR lads might be poachable. He may well be right, it's a detail I can't recall. This stuff truly is ancient history!

  4. It's fantastic to have different viewpoints of the era. That's how history should be truly studied.

  5. Another great interview! Thanks to both Orlygg and Paul for your time guys. This era of gaming was just before my time, but I'm fascinated by it, and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about it. :)

  6. Another brilliant view from the inside of the late 1980s GW when the company (IMO) was at its most creative, somewhere in the cross-section between table top-games, RPGs and boardgames - and fair play to Paul Cockburn for bluntly stating that he didn't like the all-GW-content direction that White Dwarf was taking. His editorial hand I do remember now I am reminded of it - Blood Bowl of the late 80s (I am too lazy to check which edition it was; 2nd?) was an excellent game, but yeah, I never managed to complete a game of Blood Royale, despite trying several times :|

    It may simply be a rumour - but story has it that one Herr Gotthard Goebbels, a minor villain of the WFRP PBT scenario, was created by the scenario's author Carl Sargeant as a parody of Paul Cockburn for reasons unknown. The drawing of Gotthard Goebbels in the PBT scenario book and the pic of Cockburn, above, do look a lot like one another...

    1. Ha, ha! Really, is that true? Well, as I admitted, there are probably a few people who remember me less than fondly. Carl and I were good mates and gamed together frequently for a while, but it may well have been that period at GW which broke that. I had always given him much more of a free hand at Imagine... but that wasn't how early WFRP rolled.

    2. I remember that picture well. As I recall, Carl was given to a level of matey piss-taking that started near the bone and just kept going. I remember the time he asked John Blanche (who *had* put on a little weight, it must be admitted) if he was carrying Tony Ackland's love-child and enquired about the due date. John was Not Amused. I had always believed the Gotthard thing was because the NPC was a fast-talking wide-boy type, and Paul was - well, from Essex....

  7. Fascinating interview! I'm currently reading the Imagine magazines for the first time and there are certainly gems to be found.

  8. Splendid work as usual - thanks x2 :]

  9. hmm an interesting piece, I own hardcopies of most of Imagine's run just a few issues I was missing, and I even have the first 3 issues of Gamesmaster IIRC, will have to dig them out....