Monday, 17 February 2014

Chaos Scribe: An Interview with Mike Brunton

Over a year ago now, I set out to interview some of the people involved in the Realm of Chaos project. At that time, I thought I might get one or two people interested and perhaps get a paragraph or two of information out of them. Little did I realize that the project would turn into a behemoth that would see (at the time of writing anyway) fifteen completed interviews, with everyone from Bryan Ansell to Tony Hough contributing. However, there was one individual who proved rather difficult to track down. That was the subject of today's (the sixteenth) interview, Mike Brunton. For it was Mike who actually wrote the draft that became Slaves to Darkness and for a long time he was the missing link in the picture. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, I was in discussion with Graeme Davis about some WFRP material when he suggested asking Mike if he was interested in talking to us. I leaped at the chance, as you would imagine, and within hours Mike was in contact and everything fell into place quite simply.

Without any further ado, I shall hand over the reins of this tiny part of cyberspace to Mike who will fill you in on his story.


RoC80s: How did it all begin for you in the world of fantasy gaming? Lord of the Rings? Robert E Howard? D&D?

MB: I started out as a traditional wargamer, thanks to a lot of Airfix soldiers. Finding a Dungeons & Dragons boxed set in a Bradford wargames shop was just lucky. Quite how a “wooden-box” 1st edition ended up there… Well, it was one of a bunch of games that I played instead of doing Latin and Greek homework. Fantasy was there because I seemed to read Michael Moorcock’s entire output at around the same time, but being a wargamer was probably enough to qualify as being odd. Being interested in games and D&D just meant that you were nerdy and odd before nerdy and odd were even English insults. Nowadays, I’m quite surprised that Nerdy and Odd haven’t turned up as pair of ill-matched-but-they-respect-each-other-anyway TV detectives… I started playing D&D regularly at a games club in Huddersfield in 1978, and got properly bitten by the bug. Tom Kirby, long before he was GW supremo, was a regular and very good DM at the same club.

The magazine on which the vast majority of the WFRP team would originally work, and some individuals beyond too. 
RoC80s: You started off working for TSR, if memory serves, and you worked on Imagine Magazine too. What are your memories of the British D&D scene in the early 80s?

MB: I started at TSR because they wanted a miniatures painter and someone to run their computer system. It never occurred to me to turn down a job in games.  So I was in, as Tom Kirby had already joined TSR and remembered that I was a better-than-average D&D-er, and a really-not- shabby-at-all toy soldier painter (I got asked to stop entering Games Day painting competitions at about the same time, as I’d won too many).
      I mostly remember how not-very-corporate we all were back then. Games were a cottage industry. Everyone was on at least nodding acquaintance with everyone else. Kev Adams, for example, used to drop in every once in a while: he just fancied a chat about games (this was before he’d become a full-time figure designer). The business was like that, because we were gamers who were really lucky to be paid for messing about with games.
    Another example: TSR used to host games at the Cambridge office on occasional Saturdays, and I’d go in to open up and get things started. It wasn’t a selling thing, just a day for people to meet up with like-minded strangers and have a day of complete D&D indulgence and a Chinese from round the corner. I do remember one mum, who ferried her son over for the day, thanking us for getting him interested in reading and maths: I seem to remember he had some kind of learning problems. He wanted to read and do hard sums so he could play, and his schoolwork had really benefitted from obsessional D&D. (Once she was happy he wasn’t going to be sacrificed by weirdoes, she went shopping). Still, not many companies these days just ask a bunch of folk over to play games.
      I did eventually end up working on Imagine Magazine. And it is now time for a small confession: I didn’t always go by my own name. I was cheerfully informed that “Your name is appearing too bloody often…” and that it was time to adopt a pseudonym. Or two. Or more. So I was myself, and “Mark Burroughs” and “Fiona Lloyd” among others. This last choice of name caused a fluttering among some readers (A girl! A roleplaying girl! Sigh!). It turned out that I had a bit of a talent for reading new rules sets, and then doing short, snappy adventures for them to order and at speed. The result was that I got, say, Star Frontiers, Marvel Super Heroes, or Bushido dumped on my desk and a few days to write a new adventure mini-module for that system I’d never seen before. And then I got to do it all over again a couple of weeks later with another new game. The external contributors – doing this stuff as a hobby, remember – would never have agreed to such stupid time pressures. In and amongst, though, the high pressure thing paid off through a shared by-line with Michael Moorcock, something I’m still chuffed about. It was also good training, although I didn’t know it, for later work.

I've seen copies of this go for quite a bit online in the past!
RoC80s: Was 'Up the Garden Path' your only work for TSR?

MB: It was the only “proper” module that I had a hand in, because I wasn’t part of the TSR UK design group; after Imagine was killed I was mostly attached to marketing. I was probably more responsible for the general level of silliness than Graeme Morris, who was a terribly nice chap but not given to gratuitous daftness. It was done as a promotional item, so I think we were allowed to get away with a lot of surreal elements, far more than if it had gone through the regular TSR publishing process. Up the Garden Path is best known today as (a) the D&D module that no one has seen (because of the small print run) and (b) for the extraordinary prices it can command when a copy does go on sale. I financed a lot of nappies thanks to that extraordinariness, so I always think kindly of it. It was fun, and it has really good artwork by Jes Goodwin (see: the business really was small and incestuous back then). I didn’t get chance to do any other modules, because I left TSR just before it was published. By that time two-thirds of the design group were gone as well.Most of the published games material that I did was for TSR was in Imagine Magazine. And I just talked about that in the previous answer.
          The “invisible” things I did while at TSR were writing a lot of ads, and answering the rules queries. The rules queries were actually quite a big job. There was a policy handed down from on high that all rules queries should receive a personal reply. This was in the days before email, and the pile of letters was pushed in my direction. I dutifully assaulted it every day but thanks to rising sales it never got smaller, even as I got faster at formulating rulings for DMs faced with characters wielding “Tridents of Everything Slaying +57”. I hope I didn’t mess up anyone’s game too badly with poor interpretations of the game systems, but there were always a lot of holes for rules lawyers to use. Some of those holes were large enough to conga through, and players did.

RoC80s:  Did you 'jump ship' with Paul Cockburn in 1986 or was your arrival at Bryan Ansell's GW handled differently?

MB: As I understand it, during 1985-86 the money ran out at TSR in America and instructions were issued to batten down the hatches. There was also a lot of political infighting between Gary Gygax and the Blume family. In the UK, Don Turnbull chose to load as many costs on Imagine as he could, then shut it down. As a saving being made, it must have looked good on the balance sheet, and… well, let’s not speak ill of the dead. After sending the last issue to the printers, all the magazine staff were called in and dismissed. A couple of hours later, someone realised that they’d just sacked me, the chap writing all the advertising and marketing copy as well. Cue a search for me, who had naturally assumed that dismissal meant dismissal and had gone to the pub. So, everyone else got the bullet...
Paul started GamesMaster. I wrote a couple of things for GamesMaster (or rather, that nice lass Fiona Lloyd did) to help out. Then he went up to Nottingham and GW, and that was that. Or rather it wasn’t.
           The first person to go directly from TSR UK to GW was, I think, Tom Kirby. Jim Bambra, Phil Gallagher and Graeme Morris then organised their own expedition to Nottingham to talk to GW about moving there as a unit. Tom’s move had been a real shock for them, as he had been a strong influence on the UK-produced D&D adventures. I asked if I could tag along on their road trip. I really didn’t expect very much to come of it, but GW offered me a job as well. I really couldn’t see a long-term future in writing TSR’s ad copy, so I took it. And, with all the migration towards Nottingham, Don Turnbull was a little bit… tetchy towards anyone who might be labelled creative… and it wasn’t exactly as if I’d be working with strangers…
           The only person who stayed in the end was Graeme Morris, and he had good reason to do so. He and his wife were archaeologists, and they wanted to stay in Cambridge to keep their close contacts with the university’s archaeology department. Come to think of it, archaeologists were not uncommon in games at the time: I’m pretty sure that Graeme Morris, Graeme Davis, Rick Priestley and Nigel Stillman were archaeologists.

Issue 84 of White Dwarf, the first to be edited by Mike. Fantastic Ian Miller cover to boot and even Christmas was acknowledged! Christmas pud and Sanity Claws. 
RoC80s: You edited White Dwarf for a while, what are your memories of taking the helm of the magazine in those early days?

That there was a lot to do.

And that Paul Cockburn looked terribly relieved he could hand the magazine on to someone else. He didn’t quite skip down the corridor to his new desk and job, but it was close. Editing White Dwarf was not a plum job at the Nottingham studio: it was something that needed doing, but virtually everything else was regarded as more glamorous and fun. This was probably true, on one level, because magazines must have a (necessarily dull) regularity about them. Boxed games and rulebooks are real “events” in publishing terms, and they are few and far between. Or, to put it succinctly, magazines are “work” because they have deadlines, and games are “fun”.
         The earlier move from London hadn’t gone smoothly, so there was still clearing up to do: hundreds of articles from hopeful contributors to go through. In the end, I had to go in for a merciless triage if only so that I had some space in the office. Lots of material that didn’t make the grade; with more time it might have done. However, eventually I managed to get to a point where White Dwarf was doable each month without too much fuss. I had to be sneaky, though, in one respect, and get too many pages ready for printing each month so that I could build up a “war chest” of ready-to-go material in case anything went wrong. It mostly ended up being wasted effort, though, when the decision was made to only cover GW products. Such is life.
        The good bit was that I had a relatively free hand when it came to most of the content. Pages were reserved for GW figures and products, of course, but the rest was largely my choice as editor. This meant I could cover games like Paranoia, Dredd and AD&D (all of which were still sold by GW during my time as WD editor). I did get a certain amount of (in retrospect) childish enjoyment from printing one Paranoia adventure without any maps, and another upside down: I thought this was in keeping with Paranoia’s level of insanity, and quite a few people wrote in to say they’d enjoyed the joke.
          The bad bit, for me, was realising that even then, in the pre-Internet dark ages, you could also be disliked/hated/despised (delete as considered applicable) for doing your job. This was not a universal opinion, but a few readers would have quite cheerfully attended my funeral. And it wasn’t like they even knew me! No matter what the content of WD over time, someone was going to be convinced you were making their lives a misery by printing too much (or not enough) about game X or Y. In the end I came to realise that there was no winning on that one. And never had been. Anyway, disgruntled readers never got as far as death threats, for which I am rather grateful, looking back.
          As my time on WD finished, there was a change of direction and all non-GW content was dropped. The change of content and the change of editor (goodbye, me!) are not entirely unrelated. I thought the decision was unwise as circulation and ad revenue were both climbing. But WD managed to last another few hundred issues…

Inside spread from Slaves to Darkness. Can you spot Mike?
RoC80s: You were the chief writer on Realms of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness. Rick P described the project as a 'breaker of games designers'. How did you succeed where others had failed?

MB: If I succeeded it was thanks to (a) #Cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women#; (b) long hours hunched over the keyboard and blind luck; or (c) I’m still writing it and this has all been a dream. I suspect mostly (b), with a little bit of (a) is the answer.
           By the time Realm of Chaos landed in my in-tray it felt like all the other writers and editors had either had a go, or suddenly looked terribly busy on other projects. Realm of Chaos was a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy inside the studio: it was awful job because it was expected to be awful. I was apprehensive, but actually glad to have something a bit bigger (well, a hell of a lot bigger) than a White Dwarf editorial to write. It wasn’t like there was nothing there: Graeme Davis had been the last one to assault the North Face of Mount Chaosspikeydeath, but he’d run out of ropes, pitons and tea. Quite a lot of mutation ideas, for example, were from his fevered wee brain in an early draft. And then he made himself busily indispensable on other projects. Sensible chap, that Graeme. And there was other early material that it turned out Bryan didn’t like to kick against. It wasn’t like I was starting clean: it was more like I tore off the last layer of wrapping paper when the music stopped.
           In the end, not to mention at the beginning and in the middle, Realm of Chaos was Bryan’s baby. A baby covered in pus, maggots, tentacles and eyes on stalks, but his disturbing baby nonetheless. That meant that whatever version of Realm of Chaos came out of someone else’s head was never going to be as good the book that Bryan had imagined in his own head. It couldn’t be. Ever. In an ideal world, he’d have written Realm of Chaos himself, but he was kind of busy running GW, and that was just a bit more important for everyone’s futures.
Bryan certainly tried to communicate what he wanted, as we had weekly sessions where he’d talk, I’d scribble notes, and then off I’d trot to my corner to spend the next few days writing up material. He was also given to turning up in the editorial office, plonking himself down on the battered old sofa and just chatting to anyone nearby about anything and everything. And sometimes Realm of Chaos. Bryan would have a weekly session where he’d pull my hard-won words to bits, or be satisfied and we’d start on the next bit. This was where my previous experience on speed writing for Imagine adventures came into its own. I do remember I was given a fairly free hand to do what I wanted with the 40K stuff like the Horus Heresy and the Grey Knights, but I did try to stick to the tone and grimness of what was wanted. At the same time as I was writing to Bryan’s sometimes shifting requirements, artwork was being done too, and I had to match words to good pictures. I think this produced some good stuff, like the wee snippets that went alongside Ian Miller’s dark and disturbing ink drawings for each chapter.
In the end, I think what I produced was good enough to, or close enough, to what he hoped for, to go out of the door as “a” Realm of Chaos. But I have the sneaking suspicion that he always wanted something else, a bit different, a bit better, or just closer to his (to be all pretentious) “vision”. That would have been “the definitive” Realm of Chaos. And that’s fair enough. What he got was a book that was big, impressive, and sold out almost immediately. And, miraculously, it still seems to be quite well regarded. At the time I thought it was a solid effort, but I honestly thought it would go out, people might like it, and that would be that. Something new and shinier would come along.
            It’s also fair to say that, by the time I finished doing the hundreds of thousands of words involved, I never wanted to see or think about another tentacle. Ever. And other than a box of books arriving in the studio I don’t remember much fanfare or even congratulations when it was done. That was a bit of a downer.
           It took me a long time to realise that it’s actually OK, as it was very hard work for what seemed like a very long time. About a year ago, I went back and read it when a fusion of Warhammer and Total War PC games (I was working on those at the time) was being planned. With twenty-odd years’ detachment, I came away thinking I hadn’t done too bad a job with the words, all things considered.

RoC80s: Can you recall which material you worked on for RoC? Or was it simply the case of doing the editing?

MB: As I remember it, I wrote most of Slaves to Darkness barring a few of the army lists and the painting section. I know I wrote some of the WH40K army lists, because some of the Chaos Marines are armed with pointed sticks (which is all a “spawn goad” is, after all). It’s silly, so it probably was me during one of the long, dark afternoons of textual horror.  I can’t be more definite than that, because it’s a few million words and a couple of decades ago.
I also did a pretty complete first draft for Lost and the Damned as well, although by then my interest in all things Chaos-y and spikey had waned somewhat. Simon Forrest did the copy editing on both books, so anything spelled properly is entirely to his credit. My fingers were seizing up!
          And by then, I’d moved on to have a crack at “Necromunda”, a skirmish/gang warfare spin-off for WH40K (in the version I worked on). My version was shelved, but then along came an interesting opportunity to keep WFRP alive with Flame Publications. I have the suspicion that without Flame, WFRP might have been abandoned as a GW product. While it was popular in itself, I remember hearing on the grapevine that it didn’t meet the internal standards of being a success, which was measured largely in miniatures sales. Roleplayers just didn’t buy armies, and roleplaying products cost just as much to write as rulebooks that did sell lots of models.

RoC80s: Later you helped set up Flame and began work on WFRP supplements. How did the studio operate and what did you work on exactly?

“Studio” is a very grand way of describing Flame. I like it. There were three of us (Tony Ackland, Graeme Davis and me), a big jar of instant coffee, and an Apple Macintosh. Plus a shedload of targeted enthusiasm, a rather good local close by, and desire to show our erstwhile colleagues what could be done without any bureaucracy. And no, we didn’t give the Mac a name. We set up in a couple of rooms in a rather grand Georgian (I think) terrace house away from the main GW studio, with Trish and Aly Morrison’s Marauder Miniatures one floor up. It was all very “GW trying not to look like GW”. Looking back, I think these small companies were production experiments without risk to the main studios.
           The idea behind Flame Publications was simple. The three of us had to produce a book every eight weeks and 8 pages of material for White Dwarf every month. We were budgeted a bit of freelance help for maps, if we needed it. We had to deliver books that were typeset and pasted up ready for the printers, a minimum of 64 pages long (and because of the printing machinery, extra pages were always in multiples of 8). The cover prices were to start at £6.99 or equivalent (pocket money pricing, considering the schedule, and really rather good value), and we were expected to achieve sales that covered our costs and sold out of stock. This was deliberate so we didn’t tie up money in stock. We would handle our own mail order. Nothing there that’s too outrageous, really. The main GW studio looked after printing for us, although not always without pain: one finished camera-ready (i.e. ready for the printers) product “went missing” between its delivery to the studio and the printing works. The end product looked bloody awful as someone (and no, I never found out who) decided to print from a photocopy rather than ask for replacements.
           Flame worked as well as it did because all three of us wanted to work there, and we knew that we could rely on each other not to bugger things up. We organised ourselves fairly ruthlessly to get products done without messing about. Central to the process was getting the machinery to do as much of the drudge work as possible. The Macintosh and its desktop publishing software were utterly brilliant, and these were what really allowed us to work as well as we did.
            We also persuaded an Amstrad PCW (horrid, horrid machines, but they were what GW had settled on) to squirt text over to a Macintosh, and to replace text formatting codes with matching DTP tags before it went. Text got keyed in once, copy-edited by Graeme or myself, and then I could typeset a 64-page book to galley stage in a few minutes. After that it was a question of art and map requirements and allocation, putting it all in a pleasing layout, and Bob was our metaphorical Uncle. The time consuming bits were making sure the layouts worked well, would accept text automatically, and that pages didn’t look awful or too busy. We wanted our stuff to be books that people used in games until they fell to bits, not bought and didn’t bother reading.
         We had complete access to Tony’s archive of Warhammer imagery, which was immense. Although most people probably never noticed, nearly all the smaller artwork in Flame books came out of Tony’s previous work. That meant he could spend his time doing a few double-page or single-page illustrations with real impact; the rest of the art was from stock. Tony was also a wizard with a process camera, and could manipulate his archive images with that as well, something that was definitely not trivial then. Now it’s different, of course, with Photoshop and the zillion other programs. Doing that stuff back in the day was deucedly clever.
         The system worked well enough that we got to the point of always having spare, finished (ready for the printers) products in hand every time we completed a production cycle. I insisted on this just in case anyone fell ill, or went under a bus, or something equally stupid. As far as I can remember we managed to do a character pack, rework the four Doomstones books for WFRP (I had fun working out the paper models for the crystals), put together a catch-all “compendium”, rewrite a couple of other adventures, start work on getting Ken Rolston’s Realm of Magic ready for printing and do some pre-production work on a second edition of the Judge Dredd RPG. That list is not bad for three people! We also delivered a shedload of WFRP material for White Dwarf as well, sometimes more than the 8 pages per month we expected to provide. If there was one thing I missed doing it was writing original stuff, as I was quite busy with all the editing and production work, not to mention dealing with the business end of things and, on one memorable morning, persuading a bunch of bailiffs that we were nothing to do with the fly-by-night double-glazing company one floor down. And no, they damn well couldn’t take our computers away…
         Anyway, for me it all came to a close when Graeme Davis left to move to the US. It made me take stock, and I realised that I wasn’t going anywhere inside GW. So I went to MicroProse and the wonderful world of PC games. Tony was always going to be secure inside GW, so I didn’t have to worry about leaving him behind. There was an effort made to keep Flame going, but it didn’t last.
        A few months later, MicroProse UK looked like a sort of “GW in exile”, because Graeme Davis, Jim Bambra and Steve Hand were all working there as well; the pool of experienced UK game designers was really quite small back in 1991. The pool is a good bit bigger now, but I’m lucky enough to be still working away, designing games and having fun. 

As always, I would like to thank Mike for taking the time out of his busy schedule to contribute to Realm of Chaos 80s. It must be rather strange having some random internet chap knocking on your eDoor wanting to talk about stuff you did over twenty-five years ago. As with all of our interview subjects, Mike graciously provided answers to my random, rambling questions.

I am sure you will all thank him as well. Oh, and big thanks to Graeme Davis too, for setting this opportunity up!



  1. Aha, this explains why I never could get my hands on a copy of Fire in the Mountains until Hogshead Publishing took over WFRP! Thanks for yet another great interview.

  2. Another great interview. Thanks to both the interviewer and the interviewee!

  3. Thank you for these fantastic interviews - the fact that you help chronicle this era is of great value to the community. I read your blog with great interest!

  4. Thank you for these fantastic interviews ..I like it very much..Thanks for sharing it.. Printing made in china

  5. Another fascinating interview. It really shines a light on how multi talented, skilled, and innovative so many people in the early games industry were and how GW had an embarrassment of riches in that regard. Sometimes it reminds me of a Champions League Football team who can't give enough playing time to all their best players.

    I'd not realised the GW - Microprose link before. Interesting stuff.

    Thanks to both Mike and Orlygg.