An Interview With ... Gav Thorpe of Games Workshop
Gav Thorpe is a name that will be familiar to anyone acquainted with many of Games Workshop's various rule systems writing several himself, as well as being accredited with work in developing many others including the new Lord of the Rings game. He is also a Warhammer novelist, regular contributor to White Dwarf and organiser of games at the Nottingham headquarters, however he has found time in his busy schedule to talk to Roger Webb for Ragnarok...
Rag: When did your interest in wargaming first begin, and what were the first rules you wrote yourself?
Gav: I first started playing with toy soldiers when I was around ten years old. I had a friend at school that had a bunch of WWII figures, and we used to push them around his carpet. We took it in turns to move one model and shoot, then it was the other guy's go. It was a very simple system, if you rolled evens the model hit, if you rolled odds they missed! It was a couple of years after that when I had my own soldiers, and some painted Airfix Shermans and the like, and played with a different friend, and also got into roleplaying. My 'proper' wargames experience really started with my cousin and the 2nd edition Warhammer rules, and later on more WWII stuff with older friends. I also started playing lots of other GW games, such as Space Hulk and Rogue Trader.
The first complete game rules I wrote for myself weren't for wargaming; they were a matrix-based boxing simulator co-written with a mate, a wonderfully complicated wrestling version. By this point, we'd added lots of detail to our odds/evens WWII system, such as rolling more dice for certain things, and introduced saving throws and modifiers depending on weapons. This was when I was around fourteen, I guess. On top of that, I wrote lots of scenarios, and particularly extra rules, campaign ideas and the like, as well as new troop types for plenty of Games Workshop games. It was some extra rules for the classic game Blood Bowl that got me the job, in a round about way.
Rag: How did your career at Games Workshop begin, and what were the first commercial rules you wrote for them?
Gav: I had a bunch of stuff I'd written for Blood Bowl, and I showed them to Jervis Johnson, the designer, at a convention. He liked the stuff and asked me to send them to him so that he wouldn't lose them. I spent a few nights furiously typing stuff up (no word processor back then) and sent them in with a load of other rules and concepts, along with a CV and a begging letter... Luckily GW was looking for Assistant Games Developers at the time, I went for an interview, and started the job a week later! It all happened rather fast in the end... This was when I was a mere nineteen-year old stripling, eight years ago! Where does the time go?
My first commercial rules were an additional 'Warrior Pack' for the adventure/ role-play game Warhammer Quest. It was the Pit Fighter. From that I did numerous White Dwarf articles, plus more work on Warhammer Quest including adventure supplements. I consider the Warhammer 40,000 2nd edition Codex: Sisters of Battle my first real solo project, although a lot of the basic design I inherited from concept work done by Andy Chambers and Jes Goodwin.
Rag: Since then you have obviously worked on many GW rule-sets, for anyone not familiar with them all could you outline some for us?
Gav: did lots of playtesting on Necromunda, Blood Bowl, Titan Legions, Battlefleet Gothic, 5th edition Warhammer and quite a few other bits n pieces. Blood Bowl was particularly fun. I'm a big American Football fan (and played some during my mis-spent youth) so playing a fantasy version of the game is great. Jervis had a great idea for generating 'Special Play' cards - dirty tricks, magic items and such like. If someone came up with a card that he liked and would be put into the finished game, they could use it in their next match for free! This spurred a lot of us on to come up with all manner of nasty things to do to our opponent's but keeping it humorous and balanced with the rest of the game.
I did lots of work on the latest Warhammer 40,000 edition, including writing several of the Codex supplements detailing the background and rules of the different armies. It was a couple of years ago that I then started working on Inquisitor, something which is a bit of a radical departure for GW - a 54mm scale narrative wargame. That was great fun, delving into the mythos of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, as well as coming up with very detailed but still fast-playing rules. Like many of these 'specialist' games we do, it's got some ardent fans out there, and some people who just don't get the concept. Whilst work on Inquisitor was still progressing I had the dubious honour of inheriting leadership of the Warhammer games development team. Actually it wasn't that dubious, but it did mean I had a hell'ov'a workload, finishing my commitments to Inquisitor while steering several Fantasy projects just after the release of a new edition of the game! My brain was fit to melting, but luckily Inquisitor was done and dusted in early 2001 and now I concentrate on the strategy and support of the Warhammer game.
Rag: Games Workshop has been accused of "dumbing down" wargaming and also of spreading rules between various books (codex's) and throughout various White Dwarfs, what do you say to this?
Gav: Yes, this is one I've heard quite a bit, and renounce entirely. What Games Workshop has done, and not just through the rules but also through our mail order and stores, has made fantasy and science fiction wargaming accessible. When I was a ne'er-do-well youngster getting into the hobby, it was like pulling teeth. Where could I get miniatures, where were some straightforward rules that gave me some overview of the period? I was twelve, I was interested in military history and gaming, in all kinds of periods, but it was so difficult to actually get started. Particularly after I tracked down a gaming club from the notice board in my local library, phoned the number and got such a snobby reply from the guy on the other end I decided that I wasn't going to go within a mile of their club. There's a certain elitism about wargaming in some circles - like any hobby which requires patience, money and commitment, the people within it want to feel special and this creates a real clique. But new blood and new ideas are essential to keeping that hobby alive. Look at roleplaying, for instance. During the late eighties and early nineties, pretty much all roleplaying stuff produced was for existing roleplayers to expand or switch games systems, and then oddly enough roleplaying is now nowhere near as big as it used to be, or could have been. Wargaming is the same; you have to keep one eye on the next generation. I do understand that it needs to be a compromise though, and I can certainly see how some clubs would prefer to keep their membership age limit in double figures! We've been very aware of certain aspects of the hobby for the last few years, particularly the age of our customers dipping, and have been making efforts to raise that level again, with games like Inquisitor for example. As for the rules themselves, we write games that we like to play. Okay, maybe we're all still fourteen year-olds in our heads! But is that such a bad thing, since that's when gaming was so shiny and new and you've got all that raw enthusiasm (not to mention newly discovered hormones) boiling inside you. We make games we think are fun to play, and don't try to tout them as historical simulations or anything so 'worthy'. It's all about toy soldiers' mate, when it comes down to it. I've actually seen much of this attitude in historical gaming rules lately, with the emphasis much more on game play than some mass of impenetrable tables and charts purporting to be historically accurate. Get the 'feel' right, don't worry about the detail, that's what I reckon. Then again, I'm definitely a gamer more than a historian...
Rag: You also often write pieces for White Dwarf supporting their rules; do you find it difficult to keep up enthusiasm for older rule-sets while working on new projects?
Gav: No, it's pretty easy actually. Reinventing and reinvigorating is what games development (as opposed to games design) is all about. Adding new background, generating new army lists and scenarios, these were all the things I enjoyed doing a decade ago and it's nice to be able to carry on doing that and be paid for it!
Rag: Games Workshop have recently taken a step back into the Wargames "mainstream", going to independent shows, talking more to independent magazines etc, do you feel you now are writing rules for a different (more mature?) market than before?
Gav: In terms of presence, perception and awareness, I'd say GW was the mainstream, but there you go! As I mentioned, we have been looking closely at the hobby, and the games market in general, and yes we did want to re-establish ties with the 'wider' gaming community. For example, before Inquisitor last year, I was down at Salute running demo games of the system. I think this has two great benefits. Firstly, youngsters who see a Games Workshop logo on the advert will be interested, and it'll get them to a show they might not necessarily have attended, and be exposed to the wider gaming world, not just GW stuff. Secondly, it allows us to talk directly to the historical gamers, many of which don't like GW for a variety of reasons, most of which are entrenched beliefs, which are not longer true. We don't expect everyone to like what we do (after all it is fantasy and sci-fi, not to everyone's tastes) but it's surprising the amount of appreciation you get when you take the time to explain our approach and what we see as the way to do things. Remember, not so long ago, GW was just another fairly small wargames company, but in the last decade we've grown into a massive international company, with foreign editions, overseas mail order and a massive network of gamers and traders. Theoretically, with the right product and the right person at the helm, I think any company could do the same, but most companies are content just to sit in their niche and sell to the same customers year after year. And it's not just about making money; we bring the gaming hobby to lots more people, creating a larger gaming community, which can't be bad. Oops, this has turned into a pro-GW rant, sorry for that. There's lots to be learnt from all aspects of the gaming community, from different rules sets, gaming styles, terrain and painting, and all other parts that make the hobby great. As I was saying earlier, it's important to have new blood into a hobby or company, but particularly in games development you need to have a broad overview, not just be reared on GW alone. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
Rag: Your recent rule set "Inquisitor" appears to be aimed at the older end of the market and has leanings toward role-playing, was this a deliberate move on your part?
Gav: Yes, it was deliberate. Both in terms of content and look, and the way we talk about the game, we've made sure that it isn't for newbies. It's a sophisticated rules system that requires a sophisticated approach, being mainly narrative rather than competitive. There were a number of buttons we wanted to press, particularly in veteran Warhammer 40,000 gamers, that reminded people of the old Rogue Trader rules. To be honest, I don't think it's any more complex to play than Warhammer or Warhammer 40,000 (once you consider all of the supplemental rules in army books and White DwarfM) but it is a big chunk in one go and needs a couple of games to get your head around.
Rag: The major criticism about Inquisitor is the scale (and subsequent price of the miniatures), why 54mm not 30?
Gav: Again, this was deliberate for a number of reasons. For a start, is gave us a platform to generate a range of highly detailed large-scale models in metal that would be collectible in their own right outside of a games system. The popularity of the large-scale category at last year's Golden Demon painting awards was testament to that. Secondly, if you're going to have a detailed rules set, where you've got individual hit locations and are counting bullets in a magazine, you only need a few miniatures, hence the cost of a 'force' is comparable to an army in a different scale. Thirdly, much of Inquisitor was inspired by 54mm narrative gaming in the mould of Old West by Skirmish Wargames, and taking the ethos of that gaming style into the Warhammer 40,000 universe with heroic duels and exciting gunfights. Lastly, Inquisitor is built up on character and individuality, and this is something you simply cannot get across in a smaller scale. Being able to model a scar across your guy's cheek from an earlier encounter, knowing he's got three reloads for his pistols because that's how many are on the model, these are the types of thing you can do at 54mm.
Rag: Are you currently working on any new projects that you can tell us about?
Gav: We're still currently working through our 6th edition updates to the Warhammer Armies series of supplements. Currently we've just done a lot of revision of the most important army in the range - Chaos, which has been a mammoth project for everyone involved. The opportunity for other games is limited at the moment due to our commitment on a certain movie license we acquired...
Rag: Though the rules were written by Rick Priestley you are credited as one of the Game developers on the "LOTR" Fellowship of the Ring game can you give us a clue as to where this game will be going over the next two instalments (e.g. mass battle)?
Gav: Yes, I helped test some of the early (very early) design on LOTR, and Rick kindly included me for that, but most of the dues should go to Rick and Alessio Cavatore for the game. Anyways, as elements are introduced through the films they get introduced into the games, so there's siege-orientated stuff because we have the battle for Helm's Deep in Two Towers, while Return of the King has the battle of the Pelennor Fields, so we'll certainly have to incorporate larger battles in a more playable way then simply having masses and masses of individual models. And of course, the characters change and new ones are introduced which needs to be taken into account, as well as giving scenarios for all of the fighting scenes in the films.
Rag: Have there ever been any games both within and outside of GW you've played that you thought, "I wish I'd written that"?
Gav: Blood Bowl! It's so much fun, I would have loved to have come up with it! There are not many wargames rules out there that I would like to have my name on, because there are usually bits and pieces I would change for my own games. Then again, the same is true for games I have worked on. I guess I'm still waiting for that real gem, either to find it or to write it myself. It's probably a holy grail and never to be found, but the fun is in looking, isn't it? There are lots of what I call 'German' games (i.e. really nifty board and card games), which have such elegant rules design and neat systems, they're a joy to play with.
Rag: What do you think of the current state of the hobby, both the "Games Workshop" hobby and Wargaming in general?
Gav: Thriving, as far as I can tell. I know that GW is still growing strong, and with a more stable approach to the community with our Gaming Clubs Network, and now a system of 'Rogue Trader' tournaments hopefully we can not only recruit new gamers, but also provide plenty of opportunities to keep those already in the hobby. I think wargaming in general is doing well, and the diversification that's been happening over the last few years is great to see. I like going to shows as a punter and seeing these new rule sets appearing, and new miniatures ranges cropping up. The whole alternative history thing is great and a nice adjunct to both fantasy and historical gaming, and some of the demo games you see around are just jaw-dropping. Of course, there's still bits of the 'establishment' that I think need a good kicking and a bit of a revolution, which I think would provide lots more excitement in the coming years, but I guess the reason they're established is that they're here for a long while yet.
Rag: Do you have any interest in periods outside of SF/Fantasy?
Gav: I have early WWII Soviets (Rapid Fire rules), part ownership of a 10mm Zulu army (never used, still working on the rules...) and a bunch of Gripping Beast Norman's who have been waiting the best part of a year and a half for some paint (and I need to pick up a copy of Pig Wars, because I played it a while back and had tremendous fun). I also have some little NavWars British WWII fleet, which I've played various games with on occasion.
Rag: What would you like to be doing in five or more year's time?
Gav:Really tricky one. Ideally, I'll have a converted loft or basement chock full or armies and terrain which I've made or painted myself, but that's not likely just yet!
Rag: What was the last game you played? Did you win?
Gav: A friendly game of Warhammer, my Dwarfs against some dastardly Vampire Counts. I was massacred...