Sunday, 20 October 2013

D&D, WFRP and the birth of a fictional God: A (short) Interview with Phil Gallagher

Eye of the Beholder, and games like it, were my first contact with TSR and Dungeons and Dragons. Sadly, by this time the UK division was no more. 
Some months ago I began a very interesting dialogue with Phil Gallagher, one of the authors of the immortal first part of the Enemy Within campaign among many other notable works and roles. I found Phil to be an incredibly articulate man, full of stories and with the skill to tell them. No wonder that Mistaken Identity, Shadows over Bogenhafen and Death on the Reik were the milestones that they were! Now our conversations steered wildly all over the place before other commitments put the discussion on hold. 

His thoughts on his early days at TSR UK remained safely stored in my draft folder for quite sometime until I became interested in researching '80s British Fantasy gaming on a wider scale, inspired largely by the recollections of Paul Cockburn. As we have learnt, there was quite the influx of staff from TSR UK to Games Workshop after Dungeon and Dragons module writing company was dissolved. Many a name that would later be tied to WFRP and other GW products can be seen in the credits of the British D&D modules. But there wasn't much actual information on the company itself, or at least, I couldn't find any. 

Then I stumbled across a fantastic blog called Random Wizard, which published an interesting little article about TSR UK and I have quoted it in full below. It serves as a far superior introduction to Phil's recollection than anything I could write.

"The UK branch of TSR had an even shorter history than the parent company of TSR (and nearly as troubled in its ups and downs). There is a dearth of information regarding TSR UK Ltd but hints of what happened across the pond can be gleaned from interviews and other sources scattered around the Internet.

The excellent interview by Ciro Alessandro Sacco teased some information out of Gary concerning the European operations.

It seems that Gary had a different vision of how to expand operations than what eventually occurred. Gygax seemed keen on working with local hobby shops, established residents of the area to give each TSR division its own local flavour. TSR's original presence in the British market was through Games Workshop (Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson). When TSR's proposal for a merger with Games Workshop fell through, TSR UK was born. March, 31 1980
          Not merely an outlet for distributing material made by TSR in the states, the UK division of the company was tasked with making their own brand of modules and accessories. And what an impressive line up they made...

Fiend Folio, 1981
U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh by Dave Browne with Don Turnbull
U2 Danger at Dunwater by Dave Browne with Don Turnbull
U3 Final Enemy by Dave Browne with Don Turnbull
UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave by Dave Brown, Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris
UK2 Sentinel by Graeme Morris
UK3 Gauntlet by Graeme Morris
UK4 When a Star Falls by Graeme Morris
UK5 Eye of the Serpent by Graeme Morris
UK6 All That Glitters... by Jim Bambra, 1984
UK7 Dark Clouds Gather by Jim Bambra and Phil Gallagher
B10 Night's Dark Terror by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher
O2 Blade of Vegeance by Jim Bambra, 1986
X8 Drums on Fire Mountain by Graeme Morris and Tom Kirby
CM6 Where Chaos Reigns by Graeme Morris, Jim Bambra, and Phil Gallagher
I8 Ravager of Time by Graeme Morris and Jim Bambra
AC9 Creature Catalogue, 1986

So what would have happened if this format for expansion had continued? A really telling response that Gary gave, outlines how he expected to make a TSR France division to be headed by Francois Marcela Froideval (who later went on to write the Black Moon Chronicles). I rather like the idea of TSR expanding out on a country by country basis, with each division having its own particular flavour (much like the TSR UK modules were unique onto themselves). What would have been the next step? TSR Japan-- imagine anime infused modules and a more detailed version of Oriental Adventures. Then TSR Germany-- dark forest, witcher style flair.
       Sadly, it was not to be. Shannon Appelcline wrote an insightful commentary for the recent product description of UK7 Dark Clouds Gather.The Final Fate of UK. So why did the UK series end? It certainly wasn't due to sales. Imagine #30 (September 1985), published shortly before the release of "Dark Clouds," claimed that "after the Dragonlance epic, the UK modules are the best-selling series both here and in the USA."
       Ultimately, the UK series was probably doomed by TSR's financial problems of the mid-80s and the changing tides at the company - as Gary Gygax left in 1985 and Lorraine Williams took over. There were many changes in the surrounding years, with the upset in the UK offices being just part of that larger turmoil. TSR UK's Imagine magazine died first, after issue #30 (September 1985). Following that, the shutdown of TSR UK's creative division was just a small step."

Now we get on to Phil himself, as I said earlier, the interview was quite short, but was fascinating. I felt that rather than sitting on the text for any longer, I would share it. Hopefully, some time in the future we can complete 'Part Two' and really get to grips with the development and writing of the Enemy Within Campaign but this will have to serve for now. Can I just say a HUGE thank you to Phil for taking the time out to contribute to this blog and to the wider Oldhammer Community as a whole. I really do find it startling that we are barely two years into this little 'movement' as we have connected to some many of the authors of 80s Warhammer (and beyond).

Over to Phil....

RoC80s: If memory serves, you were on the TSR UK team by the mid 80s. Describe the journey from your young gaming self to a fully fledged member of a design studio, your influences at this point etc.
PG: I didn't get involved with fantasy gaming until my 3rd year at Cambridge in 1981 or so. I'd heard about D&D but didn't really know what it was, and I'd never done any miniature wargaming beyond playing with WW2 Airfix models as a kid. I was a huge Tolkein nerd - had read everything in print at that time, including the Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, learnt the Tengwar, and Dwarfish runes - the whole nine yards. But outside of that, apart from a little Harry Harrison, the occasional Larry Niven (and Ursula Leguin, of course) I was not a huge fantasy or sci-fi fan. I thought Lovecraft was tedious in the extreme, I found Howard and Moorcock two-dimensional, and I hadn't even heard of Dune at that time! (I know, I know, how did I ever get a job at GW!?) I bought a copy of Basic D&D but couldn't quite get my head round how to run the module that came with it at that time (I think it was probably "The Keep on the Borderlands") - there were no real instructions about "how to be a DM", and I couldn't find enough saddoes to play with, anyway! Then I ran into a group of people who all wanted to play, an experienced DM, called Chris Moore, and that, as they say, was that. Chris was a great DM, we had fantastic fun, playing hours and hours at a time, and my starred first (that's the UK equivalent of a 4.0 GPA) was sacrificed on the altar of the great Gygax...   After graduation, I was struggling to make ends meet when I saw a job ad in White Dwarf for someone to join the design team at TSR UK. By luck, they were based a few miles way in Cambridge, and I thought "what the hell - might as well apply!" I was amazed to get an interview - with Tom Kirby and Graeme Morris - and even more surprised to be offered the job. Faced with a choice between being a starving, mostly out-of-work actor, or a paid lackey of TSR, I took the money! 
The early days were a fantastic time. When I joined the business, UK2 was just being put to bed - it was a case of final proof-reading, sticking in the pictures and then shipping everything off to the US for printing.
It was my first "proper" job after university and I enjoyed it immensely. The people were all very friendly and welcoming, the offices pleasant, and I had money in the bank. I learned about word processing (we used WordStar on some kind of IBM terminals, I think, with 12" floppy disks!), and DOS, and photo-electronic typesetting, and page design, and paste-up - state of the art, technology it was! 
Jim Bambra joined the team shortly afterwards and he has to take responsibility for introducing me to miniature wargaming. Outside of work we played a lot of Traveler, including 15mm Striker, and later moved onto Command Decision - at 6mm scale.
Jim and Graeme were the main writer/designers at TSR UK - I was principally editor, proof-reader, production guy, liaising with artists, and preparing materials for printing in the US. Jim always wanted input and suggestions and, over time, we developed a very collaborative way of working. He tended to be happiest starting with a blank sheet of paper, and I liked to fill in gaps and hone and polish. 
We all felt that we had a ridiculous number of hoops to jump through to please our US masters who had the final word on what we could and could not do. That would not have been so bad, had we not constantly encountered material from the US that clearly broke all the rules we were told were sacrosanct. One of Tom Kirby's roles at this time was soothing the outraged indignation of the UK design staff!

It was this omnibus edition of the first half of the Enemy Within Campaign that I recall playing with great affection. The journey through the von Wittengenstien castle was particularly terrifying, and I was the GM!
RoC80s: Were you part of Paul Cockburn's poaching of Imagine staff or did you join GW by some other route?
PG: The sequence of events - over a period of a few months - was:
1. TSR Inc closed down Imagine magazine and a half-dozen people lose their jobs. Graeme, Jim, and I were shocked when we heard the news. We had no idea it was even being considered. It was very unsettling, and left a big hole in the place.
2. Paul tried free-lancing for a bit and then landed a job at GW, just as Bryan Ansell was in the process of moving the publishing from London to Nottingham.
3. Tom Kirby left TSR UK to go work for GW. Jim and I, in particular, felt very exposed by his departure - he was one of the good guys on the management side, and it seemed that the writing was on the wall for TSR UK as a whole.
4. I called Paul in Nottingham to see if there were any jobs going. Graeme, Mike, Jim, and I were all interviewed by Bryan - pretty much en masse - and he offered us all jobs. It felt like there was a future at GW, a much flatter hierarchy, less politics, and the opportunity to be in "on the ground floor" as WFRP was created, so it was a pretty easy decision. Only Graeme decided he wanted to stay in Cambridge, but there were no more UK D&D modules.

Find Sigmar's Hammer? Who was this Sigmar bloke anyway?
RoC80s: One of your first roles was the further development of WFRP. How did you find the game when you began work and what input did you put into the finished product?
PG: How did I find the game? I just switched on my Amstrad word processor, and there it was - disk after three-inch full of files! I was little disappointed, and definitely surprised, at how much of WFRP had already been created when I arrived at the Design Studio in Nottingham. 
"Design Studio". It's a term that conjures images of stylish open plan rooms with lots of natural light, minimalist furnishings, and lots creative people with pony tails, sitting at drafting tables. Well, Enfield chambers wasn't nothing like that! True, the top floor had lost of drafting tables where the "paste-up"artists and graphic designers beavered away at page design and logos ("it needs another black keyline," was the standard comment from Bryan), while the typesetters turned the word processed documents from the writers into long 'galleys' of text. But then there were the miniature designers, mostly crammed together in one room on the second floor (although Kev "Goblinmaster" Adams had to be kept separate for some reason). I see them, through the distorting lens of memory, at high stools in front of customised wooden "desks" with a big curve to them, bent over green stuff, which they somehow manipulated onto wire armatures with dental tools (or at least that what it looked like to me!). Their tables were covered with bits of cork, castings of heads, weapons, brass rods, and so on. Finished pieces were "cured" under the heat from an angle-poise lamp. Us newbies from TSR were in a large office with Graeme Davis and I'm not sure who else! Marc Gascoigne (now of Angry Robot books), for sure was there. Richard Halliwell (Hal) was always wandering in to banter with us, but I think he and Jervis Johnson, and Paul Cockburn all had separate offices. Rick seemed to be mostly closeted in his little office pecking away at the computer, writing. Nothing if not prolific, Rick (perhaps because he didn't get constant interruptions from Hal!). There was an old dining table in the middle of the room - for conferences and bits of play-testing - its surface pock-marked by the tip of Chaz Elliott's big knife which he liked to hammer between the outspread fingers of his left hand with scary rapidity. And there was a battered old sofa (on which the same Chaz Elliott was supposed to have spent the night, when he left it too late to go home!) There were a lot of smokers back then, too, so the atmosphere was pretty fuggy, and the whole place was closer to a warren, than a "Design Studio"!
Anyway, I'd arrived thinking I was going to be part of creating "a better D&D", only to discover the rules were mostly written, and it was basically a more detailed version of Warhammer Battle. I wasn't a fan of percentile-based systems, and found the combat system a bit clunky for the kind of fast-paced roleplaying games I was used to. The magic system, in particular, seemed to me to be much more about mass battles than for small parties of adventurers, and I worried that, in the draft we were faced with, wizards would have too much power too easily. I felt like the Irishman in that joke where he gets asked by the tourist how to get to Dublin. "Well, I wouldn't start from here," he replies. If the idea was to create a roleplaying game to supercede D&D, I wouldn't have started with much of the material we were presented with. But it was too late to start again. And what did I know, anyway? I'd worked on a handful of D&D modules, and played a lot of Traveler. So, faced with the tons of stuff already written, and under pressure to get the thing finished and published, Jim and I focused more on giving the rulebook some structure, fleshing out the guidance for new or inexperienced GMs, and making the more powerful magics as hard for player characters to get as we could. 
As I recall now, the bulk of my work was editing and tweaking, rather than generating new material. I worked hard to make the rules as clear and unambiguous as I could - but feared the thing was going to be, basically, impenetrable! The thing, all these years later, I'm most proud of, was coming up with the idea of a hero who, in the distant past, was credited with uniting a bunch of warring tribes to found the Empire. Since that part of the Old World was kind of a parallel of the Holy Roman Empire, with a strong Germanic feel, I was originally going to call him Siegfried - after Wagner's hero from the Ring Cycle. In the end, I think I thought the link would be too obvious, so I opted for Sigmar. 
Jim and I had already decided to develop The Empire as the setting for the campaign we wanted to publish, so I expanded the description and background of the Empire in the rulebook, and tried to sow some seeds that we could use in what became The Enemy Within. 
I desperately wanted the rulebook to have a usable index and helpful cross-references (all my manuscripts were always littered with "(see page XX)"). However, the printing process we used in those days meant we had no way of knowing what the page count would be and what would be where, until the thing was well into production. So the index was dropped, many of the "(see page xx)" were excised, and some of those that remained never got an actual page number inserted instead of the xx!

To be continued....



1 comment:

  1. Great reading. Was led to this by Graeme Davis's recent interview with Phil ( It does look insane from this perspective just how much talent TSR let get away. I suppose we're in a rather advantageous position of hindsight but it seems hardly surprising that the promise of the material done for TSR UK would bloom into the most highly regarded fantasy rpg campaign.

    The collective achievements in the field of Messrs Gallagher, Bambra, Davis and Sargent are pretty astonishing and deserve more credit than they get outside the confines of the various Warhammer communities.