“You’re the GROG man!” Ian Livingstone has a smile of recognition as he met me in a smart Sardinian inspired restaurant in Belgrave, Westminster. He’s here with Steve Jackson to launch the new book Dice Men, The Origin Story of Games Workshop. It tells the tale of how these two friends from Manchester created a global gaming phenomena from humble beginnings. There are ten other lucky people sitting around this long table, who supported this ambitious project created by crowd-funding publishers Unbound. At the highest pledge level it was possible to attend this launch party in the presence of these two legends of gaming history.
A chance to spend time with my childhood heroes, was too good to miss, but what to say? Where to start?
Everyone is curious about Ian’s recent knighthood, so he shared the story of going to Windsor Castle to receive the honour from Princess Anne, passing around his low-res photos from the day on his phone. There’s a promise of better ones that can be paid for from the official photographers. He looks justifiably proud standing in the colonnades of the castle holding his medal. The award is in recognition of his contribution to the gaming industry. He assures us that Princess Anne had a genuine interest in his achievements during the brief ceremony.
I am struck by how easy the interaction is between us all at the table. There’s a common ground between us, whether it’s sharing the stories of going excitedly into our local Games Workshop when we were young, or reading articles in White Dwarf, or being foxed by Steve Jackson’s infernal maze in Warlock of Firetop Mountain gamebook.
Scott went to the same college as me and he says he took over the war-game society in the year that I left and transformed it into an RPG society. An extraordinary coincidence and my life could have been very different if we had met 31 years ago, perhaps I’d have kept on playing through the nineties.
The common ground we share was created by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, almost by accident.
Back in the seventies, thanks to determination and a lucky break they were the ground-zero of British gaming culture. When their newsletter ‘The Owl and the Weasel’ reached Gary Gygax (to whom the book is dedicated) he made a business deal which gave the pair exclusive European distribution rights to Dungeons and Dragons. This was the foundation of everything that was to follow, propelling them from the back of a van to a globally recognised brand.
One of my fellow diners pointed out, we know the story as we are obsessive, but even for us who thought we knew everything, there’s much more revealed in Dice Men.
THE DICE MEN COMETH
The Vitelli Tonnato and Galletto al Forno was consumed, the conversation was flowing and the book appeared.
It’s a labour of love that took longer to develop than anticipated as it involved exploring the loft to find the archive of material to support the compelling story.
The first invoice for Just Games was recovered and is reproduced here, as are copious lost artefacts from the period including the original Robert Crumb inspired Games Workshop logo (drawn by Ian), facsimiles of The Owl and The Weasel newsletter, so called because game players need “the wisdom of an owl and the cunning of a weasel” (I always assumed it was due to Ian’s round owl-like glasses and Steve’s hair colour, but there you go) and many more generous reproductions of documents and memorabilia from the era.
My favourite chapter of the book is the American tour, when Ian and Steve headed to the States in search of burgeoning game companies that they signed up for distribution and exclusivity in the UK and Europe, including RuneQuest among others. The photographs and the accompanying commentary portrays the spirit of adventure they experienced as they travelled coast to coast, delivering cars and a race against time as they headed to Wisconsin in time for Gen Con. It’s Two-Lane Blacktop, with dice. They finally met Gary Gygax who gave them the big break in the first place, when they were at their most unkempt and unshaven, but their appearance did not shake his confidence in the pair. Later, TSR offered to merge with Games Workshop, to move into the UK market. They declined and lost the exclusivity of D&D distribution when TSR UK was formed. Ultimately, a very wise decision.
If you have listened to Tim Olsen, Jamie Thompson, Marc Gascoigne, Ian Marsh and others tell their story in The GROGNARD files podcast, you’ll need this book as an essential companion.
It provides the player handouts to illustrate the stories that will be very familiar, such as the Dalling Road staff baseball teams, the banning of ‘Killer’ in the Sunbeam Road offices and ‘the great flood’. This could have been a business book, charting the entrepreneurial skills and ambitions of a growing company and the brinkmanship of Brian Ansell, compelling them to invest more capital in miniatures; those stories are covered, but this is a personal memoir, an affectionate reflection of a time when creative people converged to make something wonderful.
Ian explains the challenge of creating the book was separating the chapters into the different themes while retaining an accurate chronology as events overlapped. The Owl and the Weasel evolved into White Dwarf, supporting their commercial ambitions, while at the same time creating a community of players who shared the spirit of the Games Workshop retail stores. The early Fighting Fantasy books were being developed at the same time as the retail operation was growing. A real hive of activity. There’s a great photograph of Ian composing pages of White Dwarf by hand using letraset on a light-box. The tee-shirt I’m wearing features the cover of White Dwarf 33, “it’s the first issue I bought.”
“You’re a relative new-comer then,” Ian says, as everyone begins to share their personal origin stories. I explain that it was Steve and his article in Starburst which described how role playing games worked so cogently, that I had to go and buy RuneQuest immediately. Similar articles appeared in Space Voyager and others. Games Workshop success has been down to their appeal beyond scIence fiction geeks and hobbyists to seek out and create new audiences, I said, “that article promising adventure if you were tired of reality changed my life.”
Jackson smiles and shrugs. “I don’t remember writing that at all.”
Homemade, blackberry gelato allo yoghurt is served and the pens come out for signing. I presented an illustration by Simon Perrins, a pastiche of the RuneQuest cover, featuring my friend Doc Cowie who wasn’t able to come, so gave me the opportunity to attend instead. “I recognise this,” Ian says as he writes the dedication, “I have the original Iain McCaig at home. I have all of the covers that he did for me.” Holding up a copy of City of Thieves, “you can see the origin of Darth Maul’s horns in the design of Zanzar Bone, can’t you?”
“I know which one gave me more nightmares,” Carl, one of the fellow diners quipped.
Other copies of the Fighting Fantasy series are signed, including a forty year old edition of Warlock of Firetop Mountain. Someone mentions the American Steve Jackson, “there were TWO Steve Jacksons!”
“There are many more than two,” Steve smiles, “But, you’re right, Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games wrote a book for us. It was very confusing as we needed to say “Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson presents” Steve Jackson.”
After a brief photo-call Ian declared that it was time to “get back to work” we looked shameful as we gathered our coats to head home.
He says that he does not anticipate ever retiring, there’s still so much to do.
Dice Men is the origin story, but it’s not reached the finale, quite yet.
Dice Men is available now from all booksellers – if they haven’t got it – order it! Thanks to Ian and Steve and Unbound for organising the event, it was incredible, the food was delicious. Thanks to attendees for great company. Special thanks to the generosity of GROGGIE of the year (and every year) Doc Cowie.