The Island Economy

The latest post on Uncaring Cosmos ruminates about how the “British Old School” style may have arisen out of the RPG scene in the UK being largely curated by Games Workshop – global distribution not having reached the point where the RPG culture in the Anglosphere has become more homogenised more recently. (It goes without saying, of course, that the development of RPGs in non-English speaking markets has tended to be based largely on who’s managed to make it big with licensed translations or homebrewed games; Die Schwarze Auge is, as I understand it, the biggest game in Germany because its designers moved first before D&D got a lock on the market, most Swedish RPGs of a certain vintage draw heavily on BRP because the original Drachar och Demoner was largely an unauthorised RuneQuest translation, and apparently in Japan Call of Cthulhu is absolutely huge, especially among women.)

I think there’s definitely something to the idea of local gatekeepers shaping local gaming scenes. It’s particularly interesting how Games Workshop, by virtue of being a) the primary importer of American RPGs into the UK and b) by far the largest specialist homegrown producer of RPGs got to have as much influence as it did as a gatekeeper. (Even D&D and Traveller got their start in the UK by being brought over by Games Workshop, after all.)

That said, I would argue that it wasn’t the sole gatekeeper, or necessarily even the largest – just the only one which was a specialist in RPGs and other hobby games. I’d say that the biggest companies dealing in RPGs in the UK in the 1980s would have actually been Puffin and Corgi and their various competitors – book publishers whose main bread and butter wasn’t in the RPG field, but who put out game material as a notable and profitable sideline. Puffin not only gave us Fighting Fantasy but also the original Maelstrom, whilst Corgi imported Tunnels & Trolls (and gave us those gorgeous Josh Kirby reimaginings of the various book covers) and produced Dragon Warriors.

Of course, all of that was in the context of the gamebook craze, with the full-blooded RPGs in question usually being associated with a gamebook line – Fighting Fantasy obviously had the gamebooks come first before the basic and Advanced RPG versions came out, Tunnels & Trolls began as an RPG before Flying Buffalo hit on the notion of combining Choose Your Own Adventure-style gamebooks with RPG mechanics, even Maelstrom needed to incorporate a self-contained solo adventure to slip onto Puffin’s schedule. (In this respect, I think Dragon Warriors was a bit of an outlier.) And the gamebook craze in the UK was driven by Fighting Fantasy, which Jackson and Livingstone openly admit was concocted as a gateway drug to RPGs in general. So arguably every substantial player in the market in the UK was dancing to Games Workshop’s tune – if you were jumping on the bandwagon, odds were you were trying to emulate the success of Games Workshop or Fighting Fantasy.

Come to think of it, I think Games Workshop must have established a virtual monopoly fairly early on in the British industry in terms of being a specialist RPG publisher (as opposed to a generalist publisher dipping their toes into RPGs), because whilst I am aware of some small press RPGs from the UK from this era, I can’t think of any more substantial UK companies putting out RPG material on a professional basis (as opposed to a small press hobbyist basis) aside from TSR’s short-lived UK branch until Games Workshop made the decision to cease publishing and importing RPGs.

I guess beforehand it made most sense, if you were a UK-based wannabe RPG designer, to submit material to White Dwarf and otherwise look to working with Games Workshop. Once they walked away to focus exclusively on their wargames and boardgames, most people interested in RPG design in the UK stopped submitting their stuff to White Dwarf and decided to develop their own IPs instead. Not only did you have the rise of Hogshead in the mid-1990s as a result of this, but a bit before that you had a range of new publishers arising in the UK, often associated with an idiosyncratic game line which felt like it a) took a bit of influence from Games Workshop’s grimdark stylings and b) could well have been devised as an “in-house” setting to use material which perhaps was developed for one of Games Workshop’s lines; I’m thinking specifically here of games like SLA Industries and Tales of Gargentihr.

Even then, Hogshead largely carried the publishing torch in the UK by itself for much of the 1990s; with international distribution networks being better-developed and the Hot New Thing in RPGs being the decidedly US-centric early versions of Vampire: the Masquerade and its siblings, perhaps that’s no surprise. It feels like only comparatively recently that there’s actually been multiple UK RPG publishers active at the same time of significant size, between Cubicle 7, Mongoose, Chronicle City and Modiphius (and Mongoose is looking poorly these days). I guess the reason that Hogshead never quite managed to exert the same level of scene-shaping cultural influence over the UK RPG community as Games Workshop did is because of precisely the globalisation factors that Uncaring Cosmos outlines.

5 thoughts on “The Island Economy

  1. Oops, I’d completely missed this post when you published it in August! Which is a shame, because it’s a brilliant post, and I think your point about Puffin and Corgi is spot on (I always forget that the Fighting Fantasy books aren’t actually Games Workshop products, because FF shared so many GW authors and artists).

    I’m fascinated by British RPGs from back in the day, but because I focus on them so much it’s easy to get a skewed picture and imagine that’s what the RPG scene looked like in Britain… but I’m pretty sure homegrown British RPGs were never even dominant in the UK market.

    The biggest RPGs in the UK in the 1980s / ’90s were (and I’m not counting the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks) almost certainly all American*:

    Stuff like:

    – Dungeons & Dragons
    – Call of Cthulhu
    – RuneQuest
    – Traveller
    – Paranoia

    Then maybe there was WFRP, which had a bit of a following… And, then stuff like Maelstrom, Dragon Warriors, or even Advanced Fighting Fantasy would have been peripheral.

    Neverthless, it’s the British stuff that fascinates me (for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere, mostly to do with grime and tone).

    *Though they would have been published by Games Workshop (and given very British sensibilities by way of the GW art and British scenarios developed for them in White Dwarf).

    1. Yeah, I think the fact that D&D, CoC, RQ, Traveller and Paranoia all got republished by Games Workshop is key to their popularity here back in the day (and their continued popularity now), simply for the additional availability. If you think about it, the distribution deal Games Workshop reached with TSR happened amazingly early, and I think that meant TSR could have a big presence in the UK market much earlier than they otherwise would have.

      And then, of course, you have stuff like Green and Pleasant Land, where GW made their own supplements for the lines.

      1. Indeed. Perhaps more so than the actual British RPGs themselves, I think a lot of “British Old-School” flavour probably came out in all those early supplements, modules, and White Dwarf scenarios for US games like RQ, CoC, and D&D. I almost think that RQ had a bigger following in the UK than in the US (though I have no idea if that’s actually true).

        Still, with the notable exception of WFRP, I think it’s striking just how much US games dominated the hobby. If you look at Arcane magazine’s 1996 poll of the top 50 RPGs of all time, the top systems are basically the ones outlined above (with the addition of Vampire):

        1. Call of Cthulhu
        2. AD&D
        3. Traveller
        4. WFRP
        5. RuneQuest
        6. Vampire
        7. Paranoia

        As you say, all of those were published in the UK by Games Workshop (except Vampire). I’m sure that influenced their popularity in the UK (and a poll of US readers in 1996 would definitely have put Vampire higher up, for example).

        Plus, in the entire top 50, there are only a handful of British games (WFRP, Judge Dredd, Golden Heroes, Fighting Fantasy, and Dragon Warriors). Of course, there weren’t actually that many British systems to choose from.

        There were some more obscure UK games out there in the ’80s / ’90s (Maelstrom, SLA Industries, Tales of Gargentihr, indie stuff like Principia Malefex, etc.), but you’re absolutely right that only since the 2000s have we really had the growth of a more diverse (i.e. non-Games Workshop-centric) UK RPG industry.

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