FAL Interview: James Wallis, publisher extra-ordinaire

I got back into WFRP during the late nineties, after a break while I worked at a paper mill outside of London. What brought me back was the fact that the game was picked up by a small outfit called Hogshead Publishing, who started issuing reprints and new material. The head of this outfit was James Wallis, and over the years he carried the banner of WFRP fans all over the world

Then suddenly it was all over, and James Wallis faded from the roleplaying scene. Well, faded is maybe the wrong way of putting it … he left. Dramatically and entertainingly, as I think many had come to expect of him. But that was then, and this is now. James Wallis is back, and I hope it will be with a vengeance.

The Altdorf Correspondent (TAC): Thanks for doing this, and thanks for the picture of you with the adorable little troll on your back. That’s the first time I’ve seen a picture of you, actually. Tell the readers a bit about yourself.

James Wallis (JW): I’m the guy who used to run Hogshead Publishing, the company that published Warhammer FRP between 1995 and 2003. I’m British, I live in London, and I’ve been writing and publishing things about RPGs since I was 14. My best-known games are the card-game Once Upon a Time, which has sold a quarter of a million copies now, and The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen which is about to come out in a new edition from Mongoose Publishing. I used to hold the Guinness World Record for marathon AD&D playing. I think of myself as “tall, dark and handsome”, except I’m not very dark, or handsome.

TAC: What have you been up to after your exit from the scene? Burnt any more barges?

JW: I wrote a couple of Warhammer novels for the Black Library (Mark of Damnation and Mark Of Heresy), then went to work in the film industry for a bit where I scripted some documentaries and got to write dialogue for Anthony Daniels in two short films about Star Wars. More recently I helped UK ARG supremos the Hon Brothers to set up their company Six to Start, and I’m now jointly running Spaaace, a games-consultancy that works with TV companies, film companies, government agencies and other businesses to show them how to implement games as part of what they do or sell, and Magnum Opus Press which is my new publishing company. I have not burnt any barges, or bridges.

TAC: What prompted you to come back?

JW: Steve Jackson kicked my ass. Seriously. He asked me if Steve Jackson Games could release a digital version of Baron Munchausen, and I said there were some things I wanted to fix in the basic game so I’d take a couple of weeks to update the manuscript. That was two years ago. Steve never let up. The game is now twice as long as it was before, with a variant set of rules and a version for “children, the inbred and the very drunk”. And as I was doing that my friend Dave Morris and I were discussing how he could get his fantasy RPG Dragon Warriors, which had been a big hit in the UK in the 1980s, back into print; and I discovered I still had all the artwork for my own aborted fantasy-parody game Frup. It looked like there was an opportunity to make some money.

TAC: What has the reception been to the new company, Magnum Opus Press?

JW: Reaction has been good. We’ve only launched two books so far, but the first one–Game Night by Jonny Nexus, a very funny novel about an RPG played by the gods–was nominated for an ENnie award. And a lot of people are looking forward to seeing the new Munchausen and the revised Dragon Warriors.

TAC: What’s your relationship to WFRP now? Do you play the game?

JW: I don’t do any tabletop role-playing these days. I’m married with a year-old daughter, which has eaten a lot of my time. I do run an excellent World of Warcraft guild and we have a lot of fun.

TAC: What was it that primarily attracted you to WFRP as a license?

JW: Mostly it was the fact the licence was available. I wasn’t a Warhammer or WFRP player. I knew the game had a strong fanbase, and I was looking for a commercial property that would give Hogshead visibility and commercial security. I’d been writing RPG material professionally for ten years, I’d seen any number of UK companies start up and go bust because they believed that having a good game was the same as having a commercial game. Back in the day starting an RPG company in the UK was incredibly hard because the UK market wasn’t large enough to sustain it, and it took a lot to get the US – still the largest market for RPGs in the world – to sit up and pay attention. So I knew I needed a big name with a lot of recognition, and when a friend mentioned that the WFRP licence was available, I knew that was what I’d been looking for.

TAC: What is your favourite WFRP book (any edition)?

JW: Marienburg. Anthony Ragan wrote a fantastic living, breathing city, the artists brought it to life, and I think it’s a terrific piece of work.

TAC: What is your favourite WFRP fan material (any edition)?

JW: Warpstone. From its earliest days it’s produced material of a quality that would put a lot of actual games publishers to shame.

TAC: A catchphrase of WFRP is “Grim’n Gritty”. What does this mean to you, and how does this influence your game?

JW: Well, as I said I don’t actually play WFRP. The decision to publish it was a commercial one. But in game-style fantasy, for me “grim and gritty” means realistic. I can’t believe in worlds filled with treasure-seeking paladins or wizards who are basically walking flamethrowers. In games, ‘grim and gritty’ tends to mean that stuff like falls and poison will kill you, instead of leaving you with an easy saving-throw and often no damage at all. If I wanted to play a superhero game, I’d play a superhero game.

I know I said I play World of Warcraft. That’s different. I play it for the game. I hate the background and the characters. I don’t know anyone who gives a damn about the background of WoW. The Warhammer world has a depth and richness that isn’t just fun, it’s also believable.

TAC: What’s the iconic WFRP career for you?

JW: Either Witch-hunter or Rat-catcher.

TAC: What’s the iconic WFRP opponent for you?

JW: Chaos in all its forms. There’s a lot talked about Warhammer’s debt to Michael Moorcock, but in terms of visual imagery the Games Workshop vision of Chaos is completely original, utterly distinctive, and still terrifying. And the idea of a force of Chaos that isn’t balanced by an equivalent force of Law is wonderfully bleak. The idea that the inhabitants of the Warhammer world are basically fighting a rearguard action, that Chaos will eventually win and will destroy the world, and that’s inevitable… I love that kind of fatalism.

TAC: So … Dragon Warriors. What’s that all about?

JW: Dragon Warriors is a bit like WFRP, really. It’s a 1980s game with a post-D&D ruleset, based in a world that’s recognisably modelled on a historical version of Europe. The difference is that Dragon Warriors is a simpler, faster game with fewer character classes, and the background isn’t pre-Renaissance, it’s post-Crusades, so there are a lot of unemployed knights wandering the land looking for a fight.

The other difference is that the world of Dragon Warriors is very folkloric. Superstition and myth play an incredibly important part in people’s lives, and that gives the setting a flavour and depth that I’ve not found in many other fantasy games.

TAC: What prompted the rerelease of Dragon Warriors?

JW: Dragon Warriors was written in the 1980s by my friends Dave Morris and Oliver Johnson, and I’ve talked to them off and on about reissuing it. I didn’t do it at Hogshead because I felt the game was too close to Warhammer FRP and they’d have caused some confusion in the market. Once I decided that I missed publishing and thought about getting back into it, it seemed like a natural choice.

TAC: What are your publishing plans? Any supplements coming? Adventures?

JW: Dragon Warriors was originally issued as a series of six paperback-sized books, each one with some mechanics, a new character class, some new monsters and some adventures. We’re reformatting it so all the classes and rules are in one book, and then there will be a separate Bestiary and three campaign-length adventures–nothing as epic as The Enemy Within, but still pretty cool. Beyond that, we’re talking to several established games writers, including some old names from the Hogshead days of WFRP, about expanding the game in different directions. I can’t announce anything yet, but there are many plans afoot.

TAC: What would a WFRP fan find of interest in the Dragon Warriors game?

I think they’d enjoy the setting a lot. The tone, the sense of darkness and the fact that most of the world is unknown, unknowable and probably able to kick your ass… that’s all quite similar. There are no mighty armies marching across the landscape, no legendary heroes, and the world is much less organised than in WFRP – no elector-counts or anything like that, but the feudal system of lords and barons is in place, and much of the currency isn’t about gold, it’s about debts of honour or fealty. It’d probably be quite simple to drop the WFRP system straight onto the DW background, it would fit well and a lot of the careers would translate straight across.

TAC: What do you think about the future of WFRP?

JW: I think it’s a huge shame that Games Workshop lost faith in it and cancelled the second edition, but Fantasy Flight is one of the powerhouses of the games industry these days and the game couldn’t have found a better home. I look forward to seeing what they do with it, and which direction they take it. The existence of Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, the forthcoming MMORPG set in the Old World, can only be a good thing for the potential market of a tabletop version.

TAC: What do you think about the future of roleplaying games in general?

JW: Ah… I’ve been doing this rant for years, it’s the reason I left the industry in the first place back in 2003. There is a future for RPGs, but the games industry as a whole is not interested in following it. RPGs and video-games had their infancy at about the same time. In video-games, the state of the art is World of Warcraft, GTA4, Call of Duty 4, Braid, Rock Band, Wii Fit. In RPGs, we’ve got to D&D 4e. Imagine if video games had taken thirty years to produce a fourth edition of Space Invaders or Pong, and that was the most-played market-leading game.

That’s where the RPG market is. And that’s why a typical new RPG from an established company will sell less than 2000 copies, which is not enough to make money if you’re trying to do this as a proper job. We as an industry are selling a product that’s almost identical to what it was thirty years ago, except for better-quality printing and nicer art. Most of the RPG market is driven by nostalgia. The number of new players coming in is negligible. Magnum Opus is around for the long haul, but don’t expect us to be focusing all our energy on publishing traditional RPGs.

Wow! I never knew, or rather never bothered to find out, that James wrote Once upon a time, one of my favourite games ever! When it comes to WFRP, it was Hogshead’s endorsement of Warpstone that prompted me to check the magazine out, something I have never regretted. So in more ways than one, James Wallis has added to my library of extra-ordinary game experiences. Although I never really got the hang of Baron Münchausen. I guess I was too busy reading and rereading PuppetLand. Now, I’ve got to get my hands on Game Night and Dragon Warriors when it is released in October. I still remember those covers from ads in White Dwarf …

A great many thanks to James Wallis for accepting to do this interview, and we hope to see a lot more of Magnum Opus Press in the future!