Rick Priestley, last seen in pursuit of his arch rival Abdul Goldberg somewhere in the vicinity of the death world of Yimbo-Bim...
The Tales from the Maelstrom blog has been running for a couple of years now, and although we’ve been a bit slack recently, our voyage into old school sci-fi gaming has taken us into all sorts of strange places. While most of our games are set more or less within the Rogue Trader universe, we’ve delved into or just skimmed through other rules sets, including Combat 3000, Laserburn, Traveller and Star Farers. Its amazing how many of the same names keep coming up when flicking through some books, and one of those names is games designer Rick Priestley, author of Rogue Trader (and Combat 3000 in fact) as well as numerous other titles too many to mention. Rick’s recent output includes Black Powder and Hail Caesar, rules sets that, in many ways hark back to a gentler, nobler age of wargaming. Suspecting some kind of temporal loop (or possibly a severe dose of MACS - Mysteriously Acquired Crazy Syndrome), we asked Rick if he’d be kind enough to tell us a few tall tales of how things came about…
Rogue Trader and other games of its type bring to mind of the books of Harry Harrison, in particular the Deathworld trilogy. There’s also some Doctor Who and Blake’s 7, but seasoned with a healthy dose of 2000ad-esque anarchy and madness. What inspired you when putting on adventures for your gaming friends?
Well those things were certainly part of it. We read an awful lot of SF growing up – it was a very popular genre in the early 70’s. Harry Harrison, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Philip Jose Farmer, Michael Moorcock (of course), Arthur C Clarke, Frank Herbert, Philip K Dick… hard to remember it all to be honest! Bryan Ansell made a range of what he called ‘Trimotes’ based on the ‘Moties’ from Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s book ‘A Mote in God’s Eye’. Doctor Who and Blakes 7 – sure – but also Star Trek, UFO (great series) and practically everything from Gerry Anderson. 2000AD was certainly influential – as was Starlord (Johnny Alpha started out in Starlord). When I wrote Rogue Trader I’d only just done the Judge Dredd RPG, which had involved sitting down for many long evenings with all the 2000ADs printed up until that time, so if something of that rubbed off it’s hardly surprising! We were all great fans of 2000AD and in the mid 80’s we had a license to produce games and models. We worked quite closely with some of the writers and artists at the time – I have vague recollections of us all meeting up in the Salutation Inn (which was the usual watering hole for the GW studio staff in those days). A lot of the inspiration for the Rogue Trader style of game also came from earlier efforts such as Combat 3000 (Richard Halliwell and myself). That stemmed from the skirmishing wargaming genre which also gave rise to D and D and role-playing in the USA. When D and D arrived in the UK my gaming buddies and I felt that we’d been pipped to the post – because it was so like what we had evolved independently. Character progression, umpire driven games, and adventure style actions were all part of what would have been called skirmish wargaming in the mid 70’s. We played a lot of the Wild West Skirmish game from Mike Blake and his group – just called Skirmish Wargames. I eventually got to meet Mike many years later – a lovely chap – and a real enthusiast of the skirmish game.
Jervis doffs his hat to those very games in his section in the Inquisitor rulebook -is there anything those venerable rules sets can teach modern gamers?
I don’t think there is very much really – times change and players and writers are more likely to be inspired by the things they grew up with. One thing I would say is that those early wargames rules, although lacking the snazzy production values of modern books, were often provided with clear diagrams and line drawings. Producing wargames rules in the 60s and 70s was damned hard work – no computers, no digital photos, all what we called camera ready copy – acres of white sheets with words stuck down using cow gum. In many respects, the fact that publishing was so hard was a good thing – the bar was set very high – you had to be really dedicated to do it!
Rogue Trader and many of the games that preceded it are fairly loose and open in their approach to gaming (though they do love their % rolls!) providing as many suggestions as hard rules. They appear written as tools for a games master to put on a show for his friends, almost as if the players don’t even need to know the rules or even bring their own forces to the game. Is that an accurate description, and if so, is it a reflection of the sort of games you and your friends were playing in your formative years?
Yes Rogue Trader and Warhammer both grew out of the role-playing boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s – in their original forms they were open format role-playing style games played with miniatures. I suppose our formative games were as you describe – someone would host a game and arrange a scenario, dress the table, prepare briefing notes and maps in some cases. That was all part of the fun. The most important rule was established early on – namely that the umpire is always right!
Quite right too – I actually find hosting a game more enjoyable than playing these days. I took it to heart when you included ‘snacks’ on the list of essential items to have to hand when playing a game of Warhammer!
We have moved on to the beer fridge – now that IS progress!
The introduction to Rogue Trader and the tone of the text in general encourages the use of a GM who assembles the armies etc, either according to his own tastes, the models available, or by rolling them up randomly. It seems that this approach didn’t last very long though, as more formal army lists soon came into play with the Chapter Approved supplement and subsequent White Dwarf articles. Why did this shift come about?
It was deliberate – the game’s development was pulled along by what the customers wanted to a large extent and we simply responded to that. Some of it was a consequence of us releasing models and then having to write about them and give them a place – usually an important place – in the universe. The original scope of the game was very open because there was no intention to make a large range of models. We expected people would convert fantasy figures. There was no initial expectancy that Rogue Trader would sell. In fact, I think I’d been angling to write it for years and it kept getting put off because the perceived wisdom was that, ‘science fiction doesn’t sell’. I kid you not. As I recall it became obvious Rogue Trader WAS going to sell as the book was being produced, and the internal enthusiasm for it gathered pace, but most of the text was written beforehand of course. It was the popularity of the game that drove us to make more models and start to introduce an army structure with lists that supported larger collections. None of this was planned or anticipated – it just gathered a momentum and happened.
Rogue Trader and the third edition of Warhammer were written around the same time, and are in many respects compatible with one another (we see what you did with the psionics!) Both make reference to a GM, but Warhammer seems aimed at more formalised, even semi-competitive gaming. Did you envisage the two games appealing to different crowds, and was it inevitable that by the time of the second edition of Warhammer 40,000 and the fourth edition of Warhammer both had become more mainstream still?
Well Warhammer already had a style and an audience and I think the 3rd version was just a natural progression from the previous edition. The two books were done one after the other – but I don’t remember there being any attempt to draw them together at all. The audience for Warhammer grew up with the first three versions – and the game started to migrate into a battle game. We felt that the players wanted more formality and complexity in Warhammer – and the 3rd version really goes to town on that doesn’t it! I know a lot of people remember that version fondly, but I think it was the least playable version of the game rules we ever did!
The rules for formations and manoeuvres being pretty detailed, that’s for sure…
Yes they certainly were! A lot of the complexity of 3rd was inspired by standard historical wargames rules such as WRG Ancients. That was a tournament rule set really – with a great deal of fiddly movement post combat as I recall.
The Rogue Trader bestiary draws on a large number of fantasy archetypes common to a range of settings and game types, presumably to allow people to use any and all miniatures they had available. Are there any archetypes that didn’t make it into the bestiary for any particular reason?
I don’t think we missed anything out – certainly not deliberately! In the early days Citadel made figures for lots of current role-playing games as well as for LOTR and 2000AD under license. Part of the design brief was that we had to have rules in RT that enabled people to use all their collections. In the end players were asking us to make the things that we had put in to allow them to use the models they already had… ah well. The only reason I put Jokaero in was because we made a model Orang-utan in the 2000AD range (Dave the Mayor of Mega-City 1).
The intro to Rogue Trader suggests it was written so as to be used with a variety of settings (even making a sidelong reference to a certain Hollywood space opera blockbuster), but the 41st Millennium is presented with such depth and character it’s hardly surprising the game and setting became so enmeshed. Did you originally intend the two to be so closely related, or did you intend gamers to use the rules in a variety of settings?
I think that was just my way of introducing the concept to new readers. Hard to remember really. The original setting was supposed to be so broad as to encompass anything the players wanted to invent- with plenty of room to introduce new things as we went along. The whole ‘big universe’ interlinked by a semi-random warp-space was supposed to free us from the kind of fixed geography that made it hard to expand the Warhammer world. I think I intended people to populate the universe with their own ideas, incorporating elements of the background to suit themselves.
What sort of scale did you originally envisage Rogue Trader playing out at? The rules, some of the narrative examples and the sections on randomly determining forces suggest a very small number of miniatures per side (we find it works great with 20ish per side). Did you ever think you’d see games with hundreds of models per side and huge war machines being used?
That sounds about right. The game was written as a skirmish wargame for about thirty models a side. That’s about the size we used to play. Again – it wasn’t expected to sell, so there was no imperative to facilitate huge games. I don’t think huge vehicles work at all – unless you really do have very large battlefields – games break down when the size of a vehicle starts to intrude upon weapon ranges and figure moves. Bit odd when a pistol shot can’t go from one end of a tank to the other! That wasn’t so much of problem back in the day, but as the models got bigger, and the vehicles especially so, it started to erode the relationship between the models, ranges and moves.
We’ve used many of the more leftfield elements presented in Rogue Trader in our own games, including Ambulls and the insanely detailed robot rules from the White Dwarf Compendium. Do you have any particular favourites yourself, or is there anything you look back on and think ‘what was I thinking…’?
Possibly ‘what was I drinking…’ might be more accurate. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Catachan Face Eater though. When we produced the book I wanted to have a series of frame photographs with a face flannel poised above a door and someone walking underneath, the flannel falling, and the person lying dead with this flannel over his face… sort of Deirdre’s Photo Casebook style.
While the ‘grim darkness of the far future’ was certainly there right from the beginning, Rogue Trader had a certain irreverent charm, with numerous pop culture references and in-jokes. These are still present in the modern iteration of the game, but are arguably more hidden. What’s your ideal balance between the two elements? Is humour important to you in your games?
Well you can’t escape it really can you – games are supposed to be fun surely! Some of the Warhammer gags centred on British industrial relations of the 1970’s have definitely lost their edge over the years though. As I stopped paying attention to the outside world about 20 years ago, I’ve no idea whether the current game has any such references at all.
We know that Rogue Trader was announced a long time before it was published, and differed significantly from the first advert, which suggested something a lot more ‘space opera’ (and made reference to a psycho-circus that makes an appearance in the Rogue Trader plot generator section!). How much did the end result differ from your original vision?
Also, we believe Rogue Trader had a lot more star ship combat elements than were finally published (some of which made it into Space Fleet?). Were there any other elements or ideas that didn’t make it to the final product?
Yes the original game called Rogue Trader was a spaceship role-playing and combat game that I’d written before I joined GW – I also designed a range of spaceships for it some of which ended up in the Spacefleet range. I brought all that to GW when I joined. The term Rogue Trader didn’t have any connotations of crooked City dealers at the time – and wouldn’t for quite a long while to come. The original RT universe was a proto-version of the 40K background. So, some of the major spacefaring races were already worked out Eldar (elves), Orks (Orcs), as was the idea of the Imperium as this sprawling medieval realm spread precariously throughout warp space. Hence the Rogue Traders –captains plying the boundaries of space ‘boldly going’ in Star Trek style. Some of the background to that game ended up in the back of the final Rogue Trader book, and some was used in Battlefleet Gothic. But the actual RT book was really a development of the Warhammer fantasy game for SF – and we’d started to do some of the groundwork for that in the Citadel Journals. So ultimately – the two games were different. Because we’d actually said we were doing this game called Rogue Trader we had to use the title for the new game (see the power of my advertising copywriting…J) But by then we had the 2000AD licence for Rogue Trooper and it was felt that this would be confusing – so we had to call RT both Rogue Trader AND Warhammer ‘something’ to avoid confusion. And the something ended up being 40,000. It looked like an awful mouthful at the time. I remember Bryan said we’d call it Warhammer 3000 or some such – which wasn’t unlike any number of SF games in style – and I said, ‘well – it’s set 40,000 years in the future so we can’t really call it Warhammer 3000’. So it ended up being Warhammer 40,000 – though it settled down to 40K fairly quickly.
Oh – Pete Gostello was one of our staff – renowned for his hard-drinking ways. He might have been a caster because he wore this white ‘doctor’ style coat to keep clean and that could have inspired the title I guess. Anyway, Dr Gostello’s Intergalactiac Psycho-Circus was one of the random encounters in the original sparefaring Rogue Trader game. I seem to remember it originated in a gag that Richard Halliwell scrawled across the copy; ‘You encounter Dr Gostello’s Intergalactiac Psycho-Circus – roll for extent of vomit.’
There were a few early ideas in Rogue Trader, some of which even made it into miniature form, which weren’t taken any further (Pisceans, Dominators, Space Slann, Gyrinx etc). Were there any we don’t know about?
Don’t think so. We weren’t exactly shy about throwing it all it. Cram it on in there.
For many years, there’s been a steady migration towards very rigidly presented rules and it’s all but unheard of these days for a rules set to even mention the use of a referee or Gamesmaster. I have my own theories on this (the world is becoming ever more left-brained and literal, moving away from the right-brained, intuitive approach!) and I wondered if you have any thoughts on this phenomenon? Are we ever likely to see a widespread return to rules aimed at the GM (as in Black Powder). Do you think there’s scope for this in sci-fi/fantasy gaming, or is it likely to be limited to the older crowd, who gravitate towards historical gaming?
Yes I think there is much in what you say. The same thing happened to D and D – what was a very free form, liberating and empowering (if I may use that word) concept slowly turned into formulaic, rule-driven, prescriptive drivel. It is not the world I grew up in that’s for sure (not last time I looked anyway). Anyway – is there room for an older, gentler style of SF or fantasy game in a world where everything is points values and games balance – dunno. You can’t get back to the past. Lord knows I’ve tried. Perhaps I’ll have another go one day – then we’ll find outJ
On that subject, reading Black Powder I can almost imagine a gaming career that’s come full-circle, with the focus firmly back on the group of friends gaming for fun, to tell a cool story and to enjoy the miniatures and terrain on show. I wonder if this is a road all gamers are fated to travel, with maturity bringing a certain appreciation of what appealed to you when you first got into the hobby?
I guess so! You have to separate the games I was playing socially from the work – and because I was so heavily involved with Warhammer and 40K as a job it meant I rarely played those games just ‘for fun’ from the 90’s onwards. By then both games had acquired a character and a commercial role that took precedence – so it was more a question of making sure they worked well within very narrow and specific commercial boundaries. I think that ‘head-to-head’, point value driven, army list moderated, competitive or tournament style game was just the ‘commercial’ side. And don’t forget we grew GW from about £10M to £100M so this was not a small consideration. I never stopped with the looser style of game outside of work – it’s just that the friends I continued to play with were primarily interested in historical games.
Lastly, I think we all have our favourite gaming moments, especially relating to Rogue Trader (that time the Squats and the Assassin got eaten by a carnivorous plant while the Rogue Trader and his Jokaero sidekick escaped the angry Zoats for example!). Are there any fond reminiscences of Rogue Trader or similar games you would be kind enough to share with us?
Yes I have fond memories of playing the pre-release game on the floor of the house I shared with John Stallard and Anthony Epworth – we’d invite all of our mates round including the renowned Pete ‘Pedro’ Cantor. Pete’s incompetent exploits earned him a place in the book and… little was I to know… beyond! Our games would usually involve an Imperial Inquistor and a few squads of Space Marines (all LE1 – it’s all we had) turning up at an Imperium outpost that had sent some emergency psychic signal or other – only to find the colonists had been taken over by Enslavers (using D and D beholders) and the resident psyker had been mutated into a warp gate. Pete always blundered into the obvious ambush and got eaten by the zombie colonists. In the game I mean. Not for real. We didn’t do that sort of thing even then. And still don’t in case you were wondering.
That sounds the like the next Tales from the Maelstrom blog battle report right there! (the bit about the Inquisitor and the Enslavers, not the stuff about being eaten by real zombies…!). Sorry, anyway, any last words?
Although it all seems a long time ago - because it undoubtedly is - it's still nice to know that the same spirit and imagination that went into the creation of 40K is thriving and even continuing to grow well into the 21st century. That can only be a good thing can't it!