The making of Warhammer 40,000: Rick Priestley on the birth of the sci-fi miniatures behemoth
Rick Priestley’s interest in science-fiction dates back to his childhood.
“There was quite a bit of sci-fi about in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he recalls. “But the world wasn’t interconnected in the way it is today, so there was an element of discovering things for yourself. You’d pass books around between groups of friends, and that was how you’d discover new authors.
“I think all the Conan novels were re-released in the ‘70s, and the John Carter of Mars books, and E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, things like that. A lot of classic pre-war fantasy and science fiction emerged as part of the ‘60s counterculture.”
His enthusiasm for fantastic fiction was common for members of his generation, but his other main interest was much more of a niche. He discovered the world of historical wargames and, in the years before Warhammer brought the hobby into the public consciousness, its devotees were a small and tight-knit community united by a passion for military history.
“I was already interested in making models, collecting soldiers and building tanks,” he says, “and I had all the sort of toys you would have as a kid growing up in the late ‘60s. I always had an interest in militaria; that kind of military thing was quite big at the time. If you look at all the boys’ comics, they all had war stories in them, it was just part of the culture. And then one day I found a book called Battle: Practical Wargaming by Charles Grant. And I thought: ‘Well, this looks interesting.’
“I already had this collection of models that I’d been interested in for years, and suddenly I had this book showing me how to actually play a World War II game with them. From there I started collecting the armies which were in those books and tried to persuade my mates to play.
“It was very much a niche interest,” he adds. “It was seen as a very uncool thing to do. These days the word ‘geek’ has a kind of positive connotation but, back then, those of us who liked to play with toy soldiers tried not to go around advertising the fact.”
It would take decades for those attitudes to shift, but one game more than any other served to kickstart the process of bringing gaming to a wider audience. In 1974, American designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson released the hugely influential fantasy roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. It departed from the structure of traditional wargames, putting players in the shoes of individual characters rather than generals commanding massed ranks of troops, and the open-ended narrative that unfolded around the table was as much a part of its appeal as the tactical element of combat and exploration.
The game proved a massive success in the US, and in Europe its distribution was handled by a young London-based mail-order company called Games Workshop.
“It was Games Workshop that really popularised gaming in the ‘80s,” Priestley said. “D&D created a bigger chunk of players, and it expanded to become a bit of a phenomenon. My friends and I didn’t really get into it at the time, but it did create a kind of common culture for fantasy.”
It was around the time of Dungeons & Dragons’ growth that Priestley moved from playing games to working in the industry, joining Nottingham-based model manufacturer Asgard Miniatures as a painter and sculptor before moving on to run the company’s mail order service. It was his association with Asgard’s owner, Bryan Ansell, that was to put him on the path to developing one of the most iconic games in the hobby.
"Warhammer was originally conceived as a mail-order giveaway."
As the 1970s drew to a close, Ansell founded a new company, Citadel Miniatures, in partnership with Games Workshop owners Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. The idea was that Citadel would produce models for players of Games Workshop’s growing catalogue of roleplaying games. But Ansell eventually took over the running of both companies, merging their operations in Nottingham.
The newly consolidated Games Workshop faced one problem, though. While it had established a healthy customer base, its main focus until now had been on RPGs. And while roleplayers often used miniatures in their games, they tended not to buy very many – enough to represent their heroes and the bands of enemies they encountered in their travels. Wargamers, on the other hand, bought entire armies of figures at a time, offering the potential for far greater profits. Ansell thought that a fantasy-themed game of mass battles could dramatically increase the company’s sales. That game would be Warhammer, and it changed not just the fortunes of its publisher, but the direction of the entire gaming industry.
“Warhammer was originally conceived as a mail-order giveaway,” Priestley says. “We thought: ‘Why don’t we get people playing games with regiments of soldiers rather than buying one or two figures and playing D&D?’ We started doing lots of regiment deals so you could buy whole units at a time.
“It was actually my colleague Richard Halliwell who was originally commissioned to write it. I developed it with him, because we often worked on things together. And I did all the production work. I had already produced a fantasy game called Reaper, and my other great advantage was that I knew how to type. It wasn’t something everyone knew in those days, and it was especially rare for a man. But my mother was a shorthand secretary, so I’d been messing around with her typewriter at home for years.
“It outgrew the idea of being a giveaway and became a product. It wasn’t a real surprise, but it was nice. We knew we had something that had quality, that had character, that was fun to do and which we thought other people would enjoy.”
Fans’ reactions to the game were encouraging, but while it focused on battles between armies of fantasy warriors and mythical monsters, it also incorporated elements taken from more futuristic fiction.
“When we developed Warhammer in the early days, Richard and I incorporated a lot of science-fiction elements into it,” Priestley explains. “The world as we wrote it was created by a spacefaring race called the Slaan, and they’d terraformed and bioengineered it into its present state. And coincidentally, it conforms to an archetype which looks a bit like our own world, so it begs the question: is Earth another planet created by these beings?
“We were inspired by things like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers, which is a series of books about a sort of artificial world idea. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the Cthulhu Mythos as well, the Great Old Ones and galaxy-spanning races, or going back to E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, you’ve got these two civilisations that go out and seed the entire galaxy. The Warhammer world was essentially conceived as a science-fiction world which had gone fantasy.”
This genre-straddling approach gave the game’s creators the chance to take their original ideas in new thematic directions, and Priestley had already been thinking about the possibility of designing a science-fiction battle game.
“When I joined Citadel in 1982 I had already designed a range of spaceships,” he says, “and I was trying to get a game published which I’d written called Rogue Trader. It was a science-fiction ship combat game with lots of roleplaying elements.”
With Warhammer performing well, the company was ready to try its hand at a science-fiction sister game. Priestley set to work, incorporating his own ideas with those developed with Halliwell and Ansell. The new game would become Warhammer 40,000, with Priestley’s original name of Rogue Trader added as a subtitle, and it transported players to a war-torn future universe populated by an assortment of belligerent species.
“I was really just working off the fantasy archetypes,” he says. “The stats were pretty much ported over from Warhammer, so the feel wasn’t going to be particularly different. The Squats – we had them in those days – were space dwarves. They had the same sort of stats as dwarves, they were always going to be tough but slow. The Orks were always going to be fighty. The Eldar were based on the elves, so they were going to be quick and a kind of elite army. The humans were always going to be in the middle. And the ones that I invented, really I didn’t put a lot of thought into how they would play, I was partly just trying to cram stuff in.
“One of the briefs that I had to respect was that I had to make up rules for all of the science-fiction models we made. For example, we had the Judge Dredd licence, and people had Judge Dredd miniatures, so they had to be able to use them in the game. We also had a BBC licence, so we had Daleks and Cybermen. We also had the Call of Cthulhu licence, so we had all these Call of Cthulhu monsters. We had the D&D licence, so I had to include all of the D&D monsters. I ended up with a list as long as my arm. If you look through the original Rogue Trader book you’ll see all those things are in it. Judges are in there as Arbites. Daleks are in there as Exterminators. Displacer Beasts are in there as something I can’t even remember.”
The core conflict in Warhammer 40,000, though, was between two factions in particular. On one side stood the Imperium of Man, a vast cosmic empire united by religious devotion to its Emperor – an ancient, withered husk kept more-or-less alive by an arcane life support system. On the other were the forces of Chaos, followers of malevolent gods who spread war, death, disease and insanity throughout the stars.
“Chaos is common to both Warhammer and 40,000,” Priestley says. “Originally the Chaos warriors and demons and gods were created by Bryan Ansell. He wrote a supplement for the Warhammer first edition called Realm of Chaos, and it was inspired by the Michael Moorcock books where you have the Gods of Law and the Gods of Chaos. Bryan replicated the idea of Chaos as this mutating thing in creating his four gods: Khorne, Nurgle, Tzeentch and Slaanesh.
“I was always a bit worried about the fact that it was so close to Michael Moorcock, so I merged the idea of the Chaos Gods with the idea of primal Chaos from a kind of medieval renaissance background, more specifically, as depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost. It describes primal chaos as lying between Heaven and Hell, and Earth is basically hanging within Chaos. Lucifer is cast into Hell and falls through Chaos. It’s all very inspiring stuff.”
But if the forces of Chaos were Warhammer 40,000’s great antagonists, their Imperial counterparts weren’t conventionally heroic, either. Humanity had colonised the stars as a brutal regime founded on authoritarianism, intolerance and total devotion to its Emperor.
“The character of the Emperor is closest to Leto, God Emperor of Dune, and he has a similar kind of self-sacrifice element,” Priestley says. “I think that Dune also has that semi-medieval aspect to it that comes across in 40,000, although a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work has some similar themes. A lot of science-fiction I read when I was growing up had that kind of retrogressive feel to it. Humanity had expanded out, filled the stars, but then to some extent dissolved or gone backwards.
For Priestley, the Warhammer 40,000 universe was filled with dark irony: a deified Emperor whom no-one could be sure was actually alive, a star-spanning civilisation achieved at the cost of the very concept of liberty. Nothing embodied these grim contradictions more than the chapters of the Space Marines. Fearless, genetically-engineered super soldiers, they were tasked with confronting the deadliest threats to humankind. But in the process, they lost their grasp on the fundamental things that made them human.
“If you look at the idea of how you actually become a Space Marine, you’re taken at a very young age,” Priestley says. “You go through this training, this alteration, and you emerge as something that in some ways is more than human, and in some ways is less. So the Space Marines were protecting humanity, but they were no longer part of it. Their loyalty was to the Emperor, but they could never actually know him. And as a result there were all these complex relationships within the Imperium. There was no one figure saying: ‘Go there! Do this!’ So it gives rise to all these rival bodies and powers.”
"A lot of the subtlety that I’d engineered to give you a very rich and varied and detailed universe just got swiftly kicked aside."
Priestley left Games Workshop in 2010, and today he continues to work on game designs. His science-fiction game Beyond the Gates of Antares was released in 2015, and he’s currently working on a new fantasy release based on its ruleset. He also remains a keen science-fiction reader.
“I recently read We Are Legion (We are Bob),” he says. “It’s about these AI probes that land on planets and reproduce themselves, but they’re all based on downloaded personalities, and one of them is a copy of a guy named Bob. So it’s this world filled with millions of Bobs.”
He’s pleased with Warhammer 40,000’s continued success, but he argues much of the nuance and uncertainty that was once at its heart has been sacrificed.
“I think it became quite a literal thing. A lot of the mystery that I left in it has been defined. A lot of the subtlety that I’d engineered to give you a very rich and varied and detailed universe just got swiftly kicked aside.
“But that’s what happens with these things. You put them out there and they acquire their own life, they pick up these things and develop. And to be fair to Games Workshop, 40,000 was always driven commercially. So things that I put in that I thought would be fun and that me and a few of my hippie mates would enjoy, over time they became less relevant.
“Ultimately I was only part of what made it successful in the end. 40,000 wouldn’t have been the success that it was without the sales teams behind it, the guys in the stores, the guys in the warehouse, the guys manufacturing it and the figure designers making all these wonderful models.
“As a game designer, you’re not responsible for its success. You’re creating the platform to allow all of these other people to go out and do their thing, and I’m quite proud that I was able to do that, but it wasn’t down to me, it was down to everything lining up together, and I think that was a great time. When it was well lined up, we did some great stuff – and it hasn’t done badly, has it?”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.