Blood, Dice, and Darkness

Monday, April 4th, 2016

Games Workshop started humbly, as three game-loving friends selling Go boards and backgammon sets from their London flat. Then their gaming fanzine Owl and Weasel founds its way across the Atlantic to Gary Gygax, who sent them a copy of Dungeons & Dragons. They became the European distributor — still from their London flat:

“We were desperate not to let Gygax know that we were running the company from our flat,” Livingstone said.

“But what we didn’t know at the time was that he was publishing Dungeons & Dragons from his flat as well. Both parties were assuming that the other was some big-time operation, but it was very much a fledgling industry at the time.”

Eventually their side-project, a miniature-making company called Citadel, became the main project, as the games they devised to sell those miniatures took off:

“Bryan told us: ‘We need a game to sell more toy soldiers, get on with it.’ He’s like that,” Priestley said.

“His role was very top-down. He only laid down a couple of paramaters. He told us the game had to have rules for every model the company made at the time, and that it could only use standard six-sided dice, because every kid had them in their Monopoly sets.

“Richard wrote the initial manuscript, and then I did a lot of the production and development work, so a lot of the game mechanics were down to Richard and I did a lot of the refinement and detail.”

Warhammer First Edition

The result of their efforts was Warhammer’s first edition. Published in 1983 as a set of nondescript black and white booklets, it included rules for manoeuvring and fighting with a variety of fantastical creatures and soldiers. But it came with none of the fictional background that’s now synonymous with the Warhammer brand. Instead it was marketed as a “dual system” allowing roleplay gaming groups to fight large battles as part of their ongoing campaigns.

After Warhammer, they created its science-fiction cousin, Warhammer 40,000 — which has a deeper origin story than I realized:

“We just plundered everything. Obviously Tolkien was a big influence, and in terms of 40K there’s a lot of Frank Herbert’s Dune in there. If you’ve read Dune, every chapter starts with a bit of an excerpt, and I rather enjoyed that, so I just copied the idea by putting little bits of pseudo fiction in.”

Other influences included the works of Robert Heinlein and H.P. Lovecraft, but it was a much older source – the 17th century poet John Milton – who would provide the inspiration for the game’s greatest conflict.

In a reimagining of the epic poem Paradise Lost, which deals with an attempt to overthrow God by a faction of rebel angels, Warhammer 40,000 featured a cataclysmic schism within the forces of the Empire of Mankind. In an event known as the Horus Heresy, chapters of Space Marines – genetically engineered, fanatically religious super-soldiers – turned against their Emperor after falling prey to the influence of the Chaos Gods, the supreme antagonists of this dark future setting.

“The original idea for Chaos was Bryan Ansell’s,” Priestley said.

“He wrote a Warhammer supplement called Realms of Chaos where he came up with the gods and the demons. He produced this huge hand-written manuscript where he defined all of that, and I took what he’d written and developed it as a book.”

But Priestley’s idea of Chaos differed from Ansell’s, and in 40K he sought to expand on the concept.

“Bryan’s idea of Chaos was very much derived from [science fiction and fantasy author] Michael Moorcock,” he said. “I always thought it was a little too close for comfort, it looked like we were just copying.

“But I’d always had this sense of Chaos existing as described in Paradise Lost. I’d tried to bring elements of that into the background and gradually change it from a description of demons into a kind of force out of which came realities, a kind of literal primal chaos.

“Unless you’ve read Paradise Lost you don’t get it. The whole Horus Heresy is just a parody of the fall of Lucifer as described by Milton.”


  1. Sadly the inmates are now in charge of the asylum over at Games Workshop. The quality of the games themselves has gone in the crapper as they fully submit to the “the purpose of every version should be to make as much of the players existing army obsolete as possible” temptation (to drum up miniatures sales).

    Bad as that is, the quality of the lore, always a bit spotty but with it’s bright areas, has gone off a cliff. They’ve chased away most of their better writers and replaced them with mouth-breathing ignoramuses, largely super-fans whose only response to mention of Dune or Paradise Lost would be a sort of glazed stare.

  2. Grasspunk says:

    Sometimes this site surprises me with what gets dredged up. I used to go to the Hammersmith shop back in 1979-1981 when I lived in London as a kid. And White Dwarf was the coolest thing ever.

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