12 May 2022
We talk to Cubicle 7’s founder, Dominic McDowall, about taking our most loved stories to the tabletop and keeping the embers of the Old World alight – plus, a brief history of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
“We worked out the other day that I’ve got something like 400 credits,” chuckles Dominic McDowall when we ask him to introduce himself to our microphone at a busy Dragonmeet 2021. He is the founder of Cubicle 7 Games, a now Ireland-based roleplaying game publisher best known for The Doctor Who roleplaying game and holding the banners for roleplaying in the worlds of Game Workshop’s Warhammer series.
And on that front, the company, and Dominic’s own writing in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Fourth Edition, is one of the few places where the ‘old world’ still exists on our tabletops. Games Workshop, or rather Archaon – a Lord of Chaos – literally smashed the fabric of reality and tore the world into the pocket-dimensions we now observe in Warhammer Age of Sigmar. While there’s much to love about this newest age for the mortal realms, there’s something extremely charming about the classic, slightly silly, fantasy of Warhammer Fantasy. And Cubicle 7’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is currently the only non-digital way you can dip into this strange world.
We asked McDowall to take us on a tour of how Cubicle 7 ended up here, which begins, as many strange things do, with a trip to the doctor.
THE DOCTOR WILL SEE YOU NOW
McDowall started in an editor’s role – commissioning work and directing the course of the game books they published. He cheerfully laments that he’s not designed the layout for a book since 2011.
Cubicle 7 is now a fairly large company, “sometimes I have to pinch myself and ask ‘how did this happen?’,” he says, the company now sits at around 28 employees. Cubicle 7 was incorporated on 22 December 2006, on the cusp the new year, a birthday a few days away at the time of the interview.
It wasn’t a simple leap into the Old World however. Instead McDowall took time convincing himself that his contributions were worthwhile on the page, as well as shaping them.
“I’m a fairly traditional gamer, big on the elaborate details of fantasy, but not big on confidence,” says McDowall, “it took me a little time to realise that the games had been successful – and accepting that I had played a significant role in that – and thinking ‘hang on, I’m okay at doing this,’.”
Adventures in Middle-earth – a Fifth Edition setting – was the game that the designer felt was ‘his game’, relatively late in the history of Cubicle 7, although he’s quick to point out that every game is a huge joint effort. It’s very clear that he has as much affection for the people he works with as he does for the games that he makes.
Back in 2007 SLA Industries (sci-fi dystopia) and the in-house project Victoriana (steampunk fantasy in the Victorian era) were the big projects for the fledgling “evenings and weekends,” company. McDowall and, his then business partner, Angus Abranson were joined by Andrew Peregrine (most recently of the Dune: Adventures in the Imperium RPG) at GenCon of that year. “It was a wish fulfilment holiday in a way,” laughs McDowall, “Growing up in Bridgend, Gencon was a legendary event. We had some stuff to sell, but it was a tiny booth and a handful of books. All of the stock for Victoriana was late, so we had to drag it through the streets of Indianapolis on luggage trollies.”
“This is the pre-Kickstarter days – it was hard for a small company to break through. Not impossible, but it was going to be slower,” says McDowall.
The team hatched a simple plan, “we thought – if we could get some good licenses then that would be an accelerator.” The recognition of some of the most famous faces on TV would be a good place to start.
“For pitch practice we went to the BBC to talk Doctor Who,” says McDowall, “we went in so relaxed, because there was no way in a million years that they were ever going to give us this license. We’d put so much work in beforehand, we did a properly laid out pitch document, and put together the basis for the game. We were so relaxed and confident – that they wouldn’t give it to us.”
The half hour meeting went on for an hour and a half, “when they asked ‘when can you come back to talk about the terms of the license?’ – I don’t think we heard them properly for the first five minutes,” laughs McDowall, “so in that second meeting we were absolutely terrified – we finally had something to lose.”
But they didn’t lose it. The Doctor Who Roleplaying Game is currently regenerated into its second edition, but it has passed through five different doctors (or more if you consider the anniversary edition a bit of a medley) – the current Doctor, played by Jodie Whittaker, stares out of the cover.
From this amazing win, the team suddenly had to begin looking for funding so that they could go full-time, print the book, and have someone to seek guidance from. At this point Rebellion, the video games company run by Chris and Jason Kingsley – best known for Sniper Elite, stepped in. “I’m very grateful for the support and mentoring from Chris and Jason, as well as the stalwart assistance of their accounts department,” he laughs, “it was the right support at the right time.”
They released Doctor Who, Victoriana and Star Blazer (by Chris Birch of Modiphius). Later the The One Ring would offer one of the first chances for players to truly play in Tolkien’s world. It was an exciting step and one that led down a path toward Cubicle 7’s current position of being one of the only places you can play in the Old World of Warhammer on our tabletop.
“For now anyway,” says McDowall, once again stoking the fire of rumours around the return of the Old World for Games Workshop. While there is a Warhammer: The Old World game in development, outside of the Hive City of Nottingham, nothing is really known but a little speculation and some suggestion of the return of square bases…
THE EMBERS OF THE OLD WORLD
‘Wuff-rupp’, as the game is colloquially and affectionately called by its fans was originally published back in 1986 – and was the first roleplaying game that McDowall ever played. In what he calls “maybe the worst run game ever,” McDowall subjected his friends to the world of Warhammer Fantasy.
“My exposure to White Dwarf, the Lone Wolf game books and Fighting Fantasy in particular, were the way in for me,” says McDowall, before offering his Warhammer origin story (which many young people in have), which is of him visiting his cousin’s house where his cousin was painting skeletons (“this is clearly the best thing ever” says McDowall, enthusiastically emulating his younger self). And that was it.
Next came a familiar story of Talisman, Blood Bowl, and then “all flavours of Warhammer Fantasy. So there is a huge soft spot for me.”
“It’s also a game that, even if I wasn’t actively playing, I would keep up with,” says McDowall, “for Second Edition I was mostly a reader, and for Third Edition – as we’d just started Cubicle 7 – I was mostly feeling publisher’s envy.”
After the Fantasy Flight deal for Third Edition lapsed, Games Workshop was looking for someone to pick up the license, and they came to Cubicle 7.
“It’s one of those personal career highlights,” says McDowall about being approached by Games Workshop for a Age of Sigmar and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, “I think the love that I had for the game was obvious. Our high production values and attention to detail – both physically in the product and in the game itself – is important to me. I think they appreciated that.”
The character of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is what keeps people coming back. While there’s plenty of games that are violent and immersive, there’s something entirely charming about what Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay brings to the table.
“It is just that much grittier. There’s a lot of themes at the heart of it which are kind of eternal,” says McDowall, “you know, ‘can flawed humans rise above their own limitations?’ or ‘the manipulations of charismatic leaders’, or ‘are you going to fall for the false promises of evil?’ – there’s some really time-old questions there.”
Like all conversations I have about the Old World, the conversation takes a turn to talk about the Skaven – the rat-folk who are both monstrous and advanced in their technology. Their horror is one which is not only the fact they might be living in your walls, but also they’re developing teleporters and tanks at a moment when gunpowder seems quite modern to the common man.
“They’re a great example of the particular humour that’s in the game,” says McDowall, “it’s important to know the line you can push it to – it won’t work if it’s too silly or ridiculous. It’s hard to define but you know when it’s right.”
My own (likely failing) attempt suggest it has something like a Terry Prachett wit about it, where there are no real heroes and all undercut by the real threats of the universe.
Making the game was a case of bringing it back to the spirit of the first games, but how would the company achieve that?
“I wanted to go back to the structure of the First and Second Edition – there’s something about that statline with the weapon skill and ballistic skill, or bow skill if you’re really old school, is quintessentially WFRP for me,” says McDowall, “this makes a lot of decisions – like sticking with a D100 system – but D100 system have their own peculiarities. I think I spent three months banging my head off it, making the decision as to where the average difficulty should sit.”
“I try to put people off rolling dice as much as possible. You don’t want to be in that position where people are rolling to open an unlocked door.”
It’s interesting that a system which is full of crunch – there’s plenty to be working out on any roll in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay – has a designer with a minimal-roll attitude, the reason is simple, “you want it to matter,” says McDowall, “you don’t want to make them for the sake of it.”
“There’s something really old-school about D100 systems. So I brought in as many short cuts and simplifications as possible,” says McDowall, “success levels for example – where you count how many ‘tens’ you’ve succeeded or failed by.”
“That’s one of the interesting things as well – with a game with as much history was WHFRP has, many players will have their own preferences and ways of doing things. So I was trying to leave some room for people to tailor it.”
Initiative roll options are an example of this, where rolling is one way, but running by stat is a simplified choice. These kind of considerations are what comes out of someone who wasn’t reforming the game in their own image, but a real fan.
LETHALITY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
Of course, an important part of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is the brutality of it. It is at the heart of the game – at least for those looking in from the outside, argues McDowall.
“Again, this is where some people have different preferences. Some love the brutal aspect of it where players are making characters every other session, while others want to play the same character forever.”
“The way you thematically approach the game communicates how you want it to be played. The presumptions of the theme will sometimes have more to do with what people think is happening than the actual mechanics,” continues McDowall, “my position has always been that a rule system needs to follow its own internal logic and give the impression of being an impartial adjudicator – so people feel they get a fair experience from the ruleset and that it’s not stacked against them.”
But the perception of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is that of a rough game that’s likely to leave player characters strewn across every region of the empire.
“The perception of that is important, or more important, than the reality. So, the game has that reputation for lethality, but there are also ways to lessen that,” says McDowall.
Fate points do the work of giving player characters a handful of ways to escape a sticky and undignified end. Being knocked unconscious is still better than being flattened by Skaven Doomwheel. McDowall also added an advantage system to the game to improve your chances.
This combat system also got an upgrade, “I always wanted to get rid of the ‘whiff factor’ – with a d100 system you can have a high degree of failure depending how the system is set up. And I personally hate combats that go on for too long, so the first thing I did was put in an opposed roll for the base system for combat.”
This means that rather than a player rolling against their skill to see if they hit, both parties roll and how well or badly each side has done is compared to see if they connect.
“I wanted every roll to have a tangible outcome. So, someone gets some kinds of success from every opposed roll in combat, it removes the possibility of endless failed attacks. That was underpinned by the advantage system – so if players succeed in an opposed roll in combat they gain a positive modifier, which can roll on. Like many of the systems in this game, there is a choice for GMs – to run this capped or uncapped, McDowall’s preference is to let the advantages roll on “freewheeling.”
“Careers were hugely important for character generation, for defining those characters and giving people a real place in the world,” says McDowall. Careers make for a meaningful background for players which also connects them in the world in a way that many RPGs simply don’t. The fact that there is poverty and injustice – as an experience that many player characters would expect to have directly felt – and that your careers will affect your status, means the world is so much more alive for players.
Endeavours play into this too. The downtime system where players can spend their money – in short, between the adventures, how do they start with money? This can mean changing career and improving or maintaining your status, or, if you do nothing with your adventure gains, you’ll lose it.
“There’s three actions you can take, and unless one of those is investing your money or hiding it somewhere, you will inevitably have spent all of your money by the start of your next adventure,” says McDowall. All of this goes towards the close-to-the-ground nature of the game, you’re never far from the gutter, unless you’re attempting to pull yourself out of it.
There’s a lot coming from Cubicle 7 in 2022. With a broad selection of ‘geographical expansions’ for WHFRP including one set in a northern port city, “it’s Empire’s answer to Marienburg,” says McDowall, “and a gold rush to the ocean.” The studio will also be bringing us a magic book, player focused books with more careers, and excitingly a take on a bestiary in a book titled The Imperial Zoo. Within the latter there’s an adventure focusing around the search for these strange beasts. Wrath & Glory, the Warhammer 40,000 outing from the publisher will be getting a starter set.
Victoriana was part of free RPG day this year – and a new version which will be compatible with Fifth Edition will also be coming later. The timeline here has been advanced somewhat for the opportunity to bring in even more outlandish tech. Doctor Who: The Roleplaying Game will be getting a Fifth Edition conversion in Doctors and Daleks – which means we’ll finally have stat-blocks for Daleks.
Until then, we can be safe in the knowledge the Old World is in safe hands.
The History of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay has been through multiple incarnations, let’s take a quick wander through its history
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
First Edition (1986, Games Workshop)
The first edition of the game plunged players into the world of Warhammer Fantasy for the first time. Like many roleplaying games launched at this time, it looks fairly opaque and occasionally bonkers by modern standards. But here lies the roots of it all, fate points – a way to make players powerful and ‘special’ without having to make them superheroes, and the sense of being connected to the world around them through the intricate machinery of life.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Second Edition (2004, Green Ronin)
This edition follows in the footsteps of the first, but with much of the craziness reigned in. This outing took into account much of the narrative movements that the Fantasy Battle game had progressed – lining it up with the Storm of Chaos campaign. This campaign (one where players would write in their results to effect the later storyline) is one of the first appearances of Archaon as the Everchosen of chaos – setting the end of the Old World in motion.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Third Edition (2009, Fantasy Flight)
The Fantasy Flight edition of the game uses a great deal more props. The rules were simplified further, and the introduction of cards (300 reportedly), counters and custom dice made the experience one of nearly-a-board-game for some. Others complimented it’s elegant system, and the benefit of trackers such as the stance and fatigue trackers allowing for the combat to become tactical and visual. The system from the outside now might look a bit clunky and weird, but also modern with the removal of opposed rolls. Running the game was also simplified by the use of cards that dictate the outcomes of certain actions. A mixed bag that is surely someone’s favourite version.
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Fourth Edition (2018, Cubicle 7)
A glorious return, with a focus on the grubby and slightly amusing spirit of the first and second edition of the game. McDowall and the team returned to those version of the game and attempted to streamline what needed to be streamlined and adding back in elements lost. With each new campaign and sourcebook added to the world, there’s another love letter being added to the pile.