Saturday 21 February 2015

Geheimnisnacht: An Interview with William King

Dead things, from the hills. An internal illustration from Wold Riders.
William King's contribution to the Warhammer Mythos is considerable. After all, he created the now iconic character of Gotrek (not to mention Felix) as well as penning the early tales of Ragnar Blackmane. His writings can also be found inside the rulebooks of several classic era games, including The Lost and the Damned and his witty mix of humour and dark horror exemplifies all that was great about early Warhammer and 40K. 

I had long been keen to interview Mr. King as part of my wider series of chats about old school Games Workshop. But it wasn't until Graeme Davis, legendary author of WFRP and many associated supplements, contacted me offering to set up such a opportunity that things fell into place. So thank you Graeme for that! And thank you too to William for taking time out from his busy schedule to talk about the old days with us.

I expect that like many of you, Geheimnisnacht was my first real contact with William King's work. I had seen the adverts run in White Dwarf about the forthcoming new range of novels and anthologies sometime in 1989, and was very pleased to see the first run of books for sale in Wonderworld when I visited. Sadly, I only had enough cash for a couple of books and subsequently chose Konrad and Ignorant Armies. I still own, and read, those copies today. In time, I managed to track down all the other anthologies that were published in the first run - Wolf Riders and Red Thirst. I reconnected with the saga of Gotrek while at university thanks to the Black Library's Trollslayer, Skavenslayer and Daemonslayer.

One of the evocative advertisments used to promote the late '80s Warhammer book line.
Looking back through this first series of books, William King contributed quite a few short story gems during the 'Golden Age'. If you are unfamiliar with his work during this period, here is a little run down of what there is out there to  be inspired by:

Ignorant Armies - two stories, the already mentioned Geheimsnisnacht and the title tale, Ignorant Armies itself.
Wolf Riders - only the single tale in this edition, again the title story, Wolf Riders, the second Gotrek and Felix story.
Red Thirst - again, only a single contribution here, the third Gotrek and Fleix story: The Dark Beneath the World.
Route 666 (anthology version) - the short story, Uptown Girl, set in the Dark Future universe.
Deathwing - two short stories here, the title tale, Deathwing, co-written with Bryan Ansell, and Devil's Marauders

Happy hunting if you haven't read these stories yet in your Oldhammer journey.Right, enough of my waffle and time to talk to Bill about his recollections. Here goes...

RoC80s: Please tell us about your early life? What were your first experiences with sci-fi/fantasy literature?

BK: I was born in Stranraer, Scotland many moons ago. I discovered wargaming in the late '60s/early '70s courtesy of Don Featherstone and Charles Grant books from the local library and Airfix. 

I got into RPGs via D&D during my first year at University in 1977.

It changed my life!

The earliest SF/Fantasy I can remember reading was Andre Norton and Ursula Le Guin in the kids section of the aforementioned library. I soon started spending my own pocket money on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, Michael Moorcock and Tolkien. I was also fond of Frank Herbert and Roger Zelazny. I was fortunate to grow up during what was probably the first great boom in fantasy and SF. A lot of the old pulp writers were being rediscovered and a whole new generation of very good fantasy writers was emerging. I can still remember picking up the Mayflower Moorcocks, the Panther HP Lovecrafts and Clark Ashton Smiths in John Menzies. 

If I close my eyes I can picture the psychedelic covers of the Moorcock books and the brilliant Bruce Pennington paintings on Lost Worlds and the Frank Herbert books.

RoC80s:How did you make the transition from a fan of the genre to writing for publications such as Interzone?

BK: I started submitting short stories. It really was as simple as that. I had no idea how to go about submitting books. I sent stories to Interzone because it was in the UK and had clear guidelines about how to submit right there in the mag. 

Before Interzone I wrote a few fanzine articles for Superhero UK and sold some stories to the semi-pro Dream magazine.

Route 666 Cover - this is the anthology version which contains Bill's Dark Future short story. There is a novel version with the same name but quite a different cover. 
RoC80s:At what point in your life did you first discover Warhammer and what was it about the game that caught your attention?

BK: RPGs were my thing in the 80s, mostly the Hero System. I did not really notice Warhammer all that much until the arrival of WFRP in 1986. I remember being blown away by the colour insert in White Dwarf which featured among other things a man being abducted by Skaven. When I got my hands on the huge hardcover it did not disappoint. 

What appealed was the combination of wild Moorcockian fantasy with a certain grubby realism. That, and the pretty brutal and distinctly casual attitude towards character death. When I read the books I had the feeling that it was written by people who knew their stuff historically speaking. It felt a lot different from most other fantasy games then available. I also think The Enemy Within campaign was probably the best campaign ever professionally published.

That helped.

RoC80s: How did you end up joining GW in 1989 with a remit to produce fiction?

BK: Just after I had sold my first story to Interzone, I read an article somewhere -- it might have been in a BSFA mag-- saying that David Pringle, then the editor of Interzone, had got a job editing for a new Warhammer book line. I wrote to him saying I play this game. I know this world. I can write this. Give us a job! 

He said yes.

The launch of Zenith, an anthology my second published story was in, was held in Nottingham. I saw Bryan Ansell in the dealer's room. I recognised him from his picture in White Dwarf so I walked over, introduced myself and told him I was doing some work for his company. He asked me if I was interested in a full time job working for GW? I stuck around for an interview after the convention and that was it.

I was in.

RoC80s: What were the earliest pieces of writing your produced for GW and were there really such tight restrictions about what you could write about?

BK: It was all a long time and many destroyed brain cells ago! I think the first thing I worked on at GW was Codex Titanicus. Then there was Waaargh, the Orks and Deathwing. Most of the fiction was commissioned to go into these books and I was given pretty tight briefs as to what was wanted. 

Understandable under the circumstances.

Deathwing - the single 40k anthology released during the Rogue Trader era. There is a rather good review of this book on the Lost on Fenris blog, which is where I sourced this photograph.

RoC80s: Did you spend a great deal of time within the GW studio when you were writing early fiction? If so, what can you recall about the atmosphere of the place in the late 80s/early 90s?

BK: I worked in the old Low Pavement Design Studio for a year or so starting in 1989. It was a pretty wild place. People would sleep on an old battered couch in the office and work late into the night. There was a buzz to it. Things were taking off. Warhammer was breaking out. People were excited by what they were doing and there were a lot of smart talented people about.

RoC80s: Please share with us the details behind the creation of Gotrek and Felix. Did they pre-date the development of GW Books or were the created as part of the range of anthologies?

BK: I noticed that among my WFRP players trollslayers were popular and I could see why. I mean what's not to love about demented suicidal dwarves with big axes? When I sat down to write Gehmnisnacht, the first appearance of Gotrek and Felix I used the plot of a scenario I had run for my Warhammer campaign. I actually killed Gotrek at the end of the story, you can see the moment it happened in the story if you look closely. Then I thought wait a minute, what am I doing? These characters could have a whole series in them.

Turns out I was right about that.

I was just winging it for the most part. I always wanted to write a classic sword and sorcery series where the hero wanders around and has adventures-- you know stuff like Conan and Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. This was my chance to do it. I was still finding my way as a writer when I started. I had only sold about 3 short stories at this point. It took me about a decade to work my way up to being able to write novels competently.

That said, Daemonslayer was a book I brooded on for five years. At the time no one knew whether Black Library was going to be around for long (GW Books had been a failure after all) and I wanted it to get in everything I could about the characters. I figured it was my one chance to do things right. That's why it has our heroes facing the biggest toughest monster they are ever likely to. If I had been sensible I would have saved that for later. 

(As to Gotrek's fate) My original plan was to have him run over by a bus or possibly a steamroller :). To be honest, I have no idea. Part of the problem of writing a series like this is coming up with a suitably epic ending. I always treated the whole glorious death thing as one of the central jokes of the books, kind of like whenever they are hired/forced to protect some place it usually ends up burned to the ground. Here you have this utterly suicidal demented warrior who is just too tough and too stubborn to die.

RoC80s: Did you ever contribute to actual games development (rules) or was your focus always fiction?

BK: I ended up as a developer during my next stint at the Design Studio-- a couple of years in the early 90s. I did a fair amount of writing and testing on Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Man o'War. I contributed to a few of the early army books. I was the first person ever to lose to Jervis Johnson in a published battle report. (Now there's a real claim to fame!)

RoC80s: We have learnt over the years that many GW personalities made it into the artwork and background. Did you include anyone in particular in any of your fiction?

BK: I never knew that! For my sins the only one I can think of is Grey Seer Thanquol and he is based on me, specifically the me that plays wargames. When I win it's because of my tactical genius. When I lose it is because of the Gods are against me or because of the incompetence of my minions. 

I suspect there are a lot of gamers like me out there. 


  1. I remember that there's one issue of White Dwarf that has a notice in the news section saying that they'd lost touch with King and so he always seemed a bit mysterious. I remember that battle report too; it appears in the fourth edition orc army book and King plays with Wayne England's dwarf army.

    I love his stories about getting jobs at GW; it seems quite easy!

  2. Excellent interview. I was fortunate enough to meet Bill at Black Library Live when he was promoting the Tyrion & Teclis novels. He was dead cool and a little hoarse from all the chatter.

  3. Great interview! I love the line about the 'grubby realism' of Fantasy Roleplay.
    So true that Enemy Within is the greatest campaign ever published.

  4. Great interview and a great writer =)

  5. Wolf Riders was my introduction to the Warhammer fantasy world, I still have the beaten up paperback.
    Great interview, love your work Bill!