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I just completed a fourth round of questions with Rick Priestley (creator of WH40K) and am sharing my interview.
New stuff is in bold.
Here is proof that the interview is genuine: https://i.imgur.com/0BKdHZM.png
BIFFORD: OK, let's start with science in the Imperium of Man. The Imperium is technologically advanced but it has abandoned science. Where did you get inspiration for this? Where did you get the idea that tech-priests think machines are living things with animistic spirits? And tech-priests just blindly copying ancient blueprints without understanding the scientific principles of machines?
PRIESTLEY: Oh that's a fairly well-worn SF trope - I mean you got a lot of that kind of things in 60/70s Dr Who and the original Star Trek - and the 2000AD comic Nemesis story has a large dollop of that idea - and in fiction you have Michael Moorcock Hawkmoon series - the Runestaff books - and I'm sure there are many others some of which I would have read - even the John Wyndham Chrysalids story has elements of that about it. I suppose it was a departure from how SF was portrayed in games at the time - and I drew a lot upon history and archaeology in terms of describing a society that was both advanced technologically but 'feudal' in mind-set.
BIFFORD: But do you think it's odd that over 10,000 years across millions of worlds, there has never been a scientific renaissance? Or any desire to reverse-engineer and adopt superior alien technologies? Certainly, guardsmen might enjoy upgrading to Tau pulse rifles. Is this something you just choose ignore, or is there some in-story reason why the Imperium is so medieval in mindset?
PRIESTLEY: On the contrary - in the 'history' of the Imperium I always imagined there were a number of eras during which human space was divided or where societies diverged and different moral or ethical values prevailed - however - GW always tended towards 'Waagh the Emperor' - for such is the nature of the business - so the portrayal of the Imperium as one, simple idea became the things that it was possible to promulgate through the business as a whole. Trying to make the message more sophisticated or varied wasn't something the business wanted or was capable of handling, I'm afraid. To be fair - it was successful as it was - and remains so I understand.
BIFFORD: Was the Aztec religion an influence? Thousands of psykers are sacrificed each day to keep the Emperor alive and fuel that magic space lighthouse. It reminds me of the Aztecs, who believed their gods needed continuous human sacrifice or else the world would end or something. I think I see Aztec motifs in some artwork.
PRIESTLEY: Never considered that - I was just trying to describe something utterly horrific but driven by necessity - hence an eternal moral dilemma. To save everyone how many are you prepared to sacrifice? It's just that classic piece of moral philosophy - it also picks up on that John Wyndham theme in the Chrysalids where the 'psykers' are regarded as witches/deviants and hounded or destroyed.
I always liked to keep the Emperor as something of a mystery - not necessarily conscious or aware even - possibly the whole thing is a mistake that continues to hold the Imperium together as a social construct but which has no basis in reality. One could make comparisons with any number of religions and their role in history - of which Aztec is certainly one though not the one that was upperpost in my mind!
BIFFORD: The Inquisition in principle answers only to the Emperor, which means they answer to no-one in practice. I can't think of any real-world that government permits it security services total free reign like this. The actual Inquisition that operated in Europe was subservient to the Pope and whatever local monarchs whose fiefdoms they operated in. But the Imperium's Inquisition is completely autonomous. Isn't this a huge liability?
PRIESTLEY: I dunno what the current GW line is - but when I conceived the idea all of the organisations and institutions had their own masters and their own processes by which high-status individuals rise - or strive - to become powerful or influential within those organisations. I never imagined anyone was answerable to the Emperor except perhaps in the figurative sense in which the high-priest of a religion is answerable to his/her god/s. You can't easily be answerable to someone who by necessity is incapable of communication.
The reason the Inquisition is not answerable to the bureaucracy of the Imperium (such as it is) is that is stands outside of it - it is effectively a 'secret society' - but the same would be true of the priesthood in medieval Europe where its institutions are tied to the church (and hence the Pope) and not the ruler of that country.
BIFFORD: The gene-seeds of the Space Marines are based on the Emperor's own genome, thus they have a touch of divinity in them. However, in your original book (Rogue Trader), they are enhanced by "bio-chem" and "psycho-surgery". Was the divine gene-seed your idea, or somebody else's? What was the inspiration for the change?
PRIESTLEY: Well - the SM's are genetically engineered from their Primarch's genome - the Primarch's from the Empero/or modified by the Emperor - so SM's have that connection and always did - but I always imagined that the physical and mental 'alteration' was a necessary part of that - so I don't think that's a change - it is or was both - but I don't know what the current GW portrayal of SM's is like. They might have changed it since my day!
BIFFORD: It seems that Warhammer 40,000 is more popular than Warhammer Fantasy. What was it like in the early days of WH40K? What was the early reaction to WH40K? At what point did sales of WH40K surpass Warhammer Fantasy?
PRIESTLEY: I think we knew 40K was going to be big before it launched - there was a lot of enthusiasm for it - and it pretty much eclipsed fantasy and everything else GW then sold almost at once. However - it took a long time for the idea to get approval for the go ahead - the prevailing view pre-40K was that 'Science fiction doesn't sell'... so to start with there was only a limited range planned. That's why the 'races' in 40K are based on the fantasy races - the original plan was that we wouldn't sell any 'aliens' but people could buy weapon packs and convert their fantasy models if they wanted. Hence Eldar are Elves, Orks are Orcs and Dwarfs were - for a while - Squats. I remember that plan changed pretty quickly though!
BIFFORD: You said once that the novel "Dune" was an influence. How many books in the "Dune" series have you read, and did any of the later works influence you?
PRIESTLEY: Yes the sweep of Dune - the idea of an individual becoming a reluctant 'god' - there is a lot of that in 40K. I think I've read them all - well as far as Chapter House Dune anyway! Yes that was the last one (just checked) then other authors pitched in a wrote a second series but I've not read those.
God Emperor of Dune has something in common with the idea of the Emperor in 40K - but so does the King-Emperor Huon in the Runestaff books - and I think I drew on a lot of sources - historical and fictional - when I put together the 40K back-ground - so you can't pin it down to one thing really. As the IP lawyers would say - whilst it draws its inspiration from many sources it remains a wholly original creation.
BIFFORD: What is the afterlife like in the WH40K universe? It's never really been explored in the literature, and that's something of an odd omission for a setting that is built around magic and religion. We know what happens to the Eldar dead, but what is the human afterlife?
PRIESTLEY: Well - the whole Realm of Chaos series dealt with the cosmology behind both Warhammer and 40K - it is covered in some depth in Slaves to darkness and The Lost and the Damned - especially the former IIRC. Briefly - most individual's life essence melds back into chaos where it contributes to the fabric of the warp nurturing or coalescing like-to-like to form what are portrayed in the 40K background as 'gods' - which includes the Emperor (or not... that should really be a 'what if'). A few individuals attain a kind of immortality and become coherent conscious spirits either subservient to one of those 'gods' or not. But as I say - it's covered in a lot of detail in the original RoC books.
The reason the Eldar evolved a method of feeding their essence into a material real-world matrix was to avoid what was waiting for them on the 'otherside' - namely Slaanesh - a vortex of 'Elven' follies and passions too strong for even the strongest willed of the Eldar to escape.
BIFFORD: Was it you who came up with Untouchables? These are humans born without souls. Their brains push away the Warp from real-space, disrupting psychic phenomena.
PRIESTLEY: Nope - that sounds like a 'get round' to me - it's something that 'gets round' something in the background rather than building on or conforming to it.
BIFFORD: Let's talk more about your career at GW. When did you first start working for them, and what was your first function?
PRIESTLEY: 1982 - I joined Citadel in Newark to deal with the mail order - which I did on my own for a while before recruiting staff and then I handed over and went on to start the Citadel studio with Tony Ackland - we recruited John Blanche after a short while - and the three of us did the first WH, supplements, MO catalogues, Journals, packaging (blisters, boxes, paint sets). The models were still made by sculptors who worked at home - mostly by the Perry twins - so it was their mum and dad's home
BIFFORD: Have you ever done sculpting miniatures?
PRIESTLEY: Yes I worked as a freelance sculptor briefly before I joined Citadel - and I made a few things for Citadel including war machines and treasure chests - mostly straight-line work - though I made 15mm ranges for Tabletop Games in Nottingham. It was the late 70s/early 80's though so the standard was not comparable to modern design.
BIFFORD: Did you design any wargames before Warhammer?
PRIESTLEY: Yes - Reaper Fantasy published by the Nottingham Model Soldier Shop, Combat 3000 published by Tabletop games and a supplement for that called Combat 3001 - all of those co-written with Richard Halliwell, There was also Imperial Commander - another TTG game - which I contributed to but which is credited Richard Halliwell. So I had a bit of a track record. You have to remember - in the early 80's very few males could type - and we are talking manual typewriters in the 70's - then electronic ones - and primitive Word Processors by the time we started at Citadel - so just being a bloke who could type was something! 'Typist' was traditionally a woman's job - so only girls were taught or expected to do it - my mother was a typist and secretary so we had a typewriter at home - that's the only reason I learned.
BIFFORD: How successful were your pre-GW wargames?
PRIESTLEY: Alright I think - but we are not talking the sort of commercial success that Citadel (later GW) was to have - but they did alright in their day. There was a second edition of Reaper published by Tabletop.
BIFFORD: So your bosses at GW were impressed by your previous wargames and sculpting skills and decided to put you in charge of their big project.
PRIESTLEY: Naaw... the chap who ran Citadel was Bryan Ansell and we knew each other back from Asgard days which Bryan started and which I did a little bit of work for - painting and modelling. Bryan just wanted someone 'useful' to deal with the mail order because at the time he was doing it himself 🙂
BIFFORD: How then did you get the job to design Warhammer Fantasy? Was it your proposal or Mr Ansell's?
PRIESTLEY: It was Bryan's idea that we should do a set of rules as a 'mail order give away' to help sell more models. At the time folks were buying 1s and 2s of things to play D&D. We started selling 'regiments' and Bryan wanted to encourage folks to use them to play 'battles' .
The game was commissioned from Richard Halliwell - who also worked at Citadel on and off - and Richard and I developed the game together. I then developed the manuscript a bit and produced the books (three) with Tony Ackland. So, Bryan's role was really commissioning the game - and he specified that it should use ordinary D6s (at the time D&D used lots of different dice). BIFFORD: Whose idea was it to develop Warhammer 40,000? Was it your proposal, or did somebody instruct you to make it? PRIESTLEY: That was me. It was something I had a mind to do when I joined Citadel/GW. I brought the title 'Rogue Trader' with me and an outline game, so there was an understanding when I joined that RT would be produced one day. Because it actually took 5 years to get round to it, the concept behind the game did change and develop quite a bit - but it was always based off classic fantasy races as was the final version of course. As I've said many times, there wasn't much enthusiasm to produce RT for years and it was only once I'd cleared a number of other projects and we employed more games writers that I was given the go ahead. Even then the perceived wisdom was that 'science fiction doesn't sell', so there was very little expectancy that the game would be anything other that a 'here today gone tomorrow' affair. Attitudes did change as we were developing the game, and throughout the company people did recognise that there was an appetite for it out there in the world. By the time it was launched there was quite a bit of support within the company and product range. Initially though, the plan was to make almost no models and instead provide metal conversion packs to allow people to convert fantasy stuff. BIFFORD: You say "it was always based off classic fantasy races as was the final version". I thought that you added fantasy elements (magic, elves, orks, etc.) AFTER Games Workshop complained that "science fiction doesn't sell". If the fantasy elements were there from the beginning, what inspired you to mix them in? PRIESTLEY: Yes they were there from the beginning - although I had a vague idea that they might have physical differences - I wanted the Eldar to have an 'insectoid' background for example - but remember that in 1982 there wasn't such a fixed idea about what - for example a fantasy Orc looked like - look at the 82 range and you'll see the little baldy Red Orcs and various other Orcs and Goblins - none of which look much like the Orc/Goblins that Kevin Adams and later Bryan Nelson made for GW - so when I say the concept was there I do mean as a concept and not literally looking like the 87+ model ranges. When it came to making the actual models all those years later, there wasn't any appetite to invest huge amount making new models to start with, hence the notion of using conversion packs and the contemporary fantasy model ranges. SF doesn't sell - well you have to remember I'd known Bryan Ansell, who was running Citadel when I joined, for quite a while already. So when Bryan said that SF doesn't sell he was basing it on some years of experience including making his own Laserburn ranges for TableTop Games. So it was just common knowledge at the time, not a sudden revelation! Also, 'nobody buys aliens'... those were the two 'facts' of Sf wargames! Actually - it would have been more true to say 'nobody buys SF wargames' - not literally true obviously - but there really were no commonly played SF wargames - and both Bryan and myself with Richard Halliwell had written a few. BIFFORD: OK, but what inspired you to make a game that mixed fantasy with science-fiction? PRIESTLEY: I don't think there was anything specific - I'd been wargaming for years with all sorts of things including historical WW2 and ancients - but lots of things really - we started playing Fantasy wargames in the very early 70's and even SF games - minifigs brought out a small range in the early 70's - and it was just another thing to do. What inspired us and later me was only what we'd been reading about, watching on TV, and all the stuff that would have inspired anybody - there wasn't any one thing. I just thought it was interesting to have that mystical kind of sf - and it wasn't so unusual - there were a lot of fantasy/sf crossover stories like Moorcock's Hawkmoon and so on - in 2000AD there was the Nemesis the Warlock stories - and they have a lot of the same character as 40K - and of course Dune by Frank Herbert has much of that too (before the film of course). BIFFORD: You say you proposed to GW that, instead of selling complete sci-fi miniatures for WH40K, they sell kits with which players could convert their Citadel fantasy miniatures into sci-fi miniatures. Did you propose this before or after the release of Warhammer Fantasy? PRIESTLEY: Sorry I perhaps misled you there - it wasn't me that proposed selling conversion pieces - or at least I don't think it was! I did write an article in one of the early Journals or Compendiums about using technological weapons in a fantasy context - in fact that kind of thing was always in the Warhammer background with the Slann and the Amazons - the daemon-Aztec-frogs-from outer space - as we cheerfully called them! The Warhammer world (started to emerge in 2nd edition WH and earlier in Journals/etc) was envisaged as being a creation of a spacefaring race - and this goes back to the idea of a 'fantasy' or medieval environment springing from a technologically advanced past - which was a fairly common sf trope then as now. So, the idea of making conversion packs might have started back then - as an idea. But the proposal to do this for 40K would have been really early. It would have gone something like this. BIFFORD: But was it your idea to rebrand "Rogue Trader" as a spinoff of Warhammer Fantasy? PRIESTLEY: No that was a result of GW signing a licence with 2000AD - which meant we already had a game called Rogue Troopers based on that story - or in production/development anyway - I forget which and no doubt you can check the release dates - and there was some concern that people would get confused if we sold a game or Rogue Trader and another game called Rogue Trooper... and you can see their point. But we had to subtitle the game Rogue Trader because we'd already been promoting the concept for a good while, and customers were expecting a game called Rogue Trader. I remember Bryan asking me to choose a new name and suggesting something like Warhammer 3000 (by analogy with Combat 3000 which was a game me an Hal had written way back when) and I said something like - well it's set 40,000 years in the future so I guess WH 40,000 would work - and at the time I thought it very clumsy - but as with all titles they tend to become accepted after a while. And noone really questions them!
BIFFORD: There are two missing Space Marine Legions: the 2nd and the 11th. They have been purged from Imperium records, and Games Workshop has so far not given any details of what they were like. Did you have any vision or plan for an eventual revelation? Did you have any concept of what they should be like?
PRIESTLEY: I always imaged these Legions were deleted from the records as a result of things that happened during the Horus Heresy - and that the 'purging' was a recognition that whatever terrible things they had done had been - in the end - redeemed in some way. So - with the passing of all record of them was also expunged all record of their misdeeds - they are forgiven and forgotten. As opposed to those legions which rebelled and which remain 'traitor' legions.
Of course - I never imagined that the Horus Heresy would even emerge from a mythic past (it was ten thousand years ago after all!) so I fondly imaged we had many thousand of years in which we could create diverse and colourful histories. In fact, the Horus Heresy idea was picked up and became a strong theme for the 'epic' game and later for 40K in other ways - but it was also meant to be mysterious and 'beyond knowing' as I conceived it.
BIFFORD: So you never had any details in mind; it was always meant to be a vague mystery to you. You never planned a revelation.
PRIESTLEY: That's right - it was always intended to be something unknown - but had I had the chance to evolve the story of the Horus Heresy for myself I imagine I would have picked up on it. As it was that task was taken up by others and the Horus Heresy developed in ways somewhat beyond my control! But such is the nature of the thing. You can't do everything yourself 🙂
BIFFORD: I have another question about the Missing Space Marine Legions. It sounds like their purpose was to illustrate the character of the Imperium. The Imperium is a very proud but very insecure culture that doesn't like to confront its flaws and awkward legacies. It prefers to forget them; damnatio memoriae. Is my interpretation correct?
PRIESTLEY: Yes it was to illustrate the character of the Imperium as it was at a certain point in its history - even though perhaps that no longer made a great deal of sense. I always thought of the Imperium as a vast self-serving bureaucracy in which no-one really knew what they were doing but they continue do it out of a sense of tradition and routine - so status and power become bound up with all kinds of half-baked assumptions, received wisdom and superstition. Much like the real world really. BIFFORD: A popular belief among fans is that you left those two Legions blank so that players of Horus Heresy games could invent their own Legions. Is this true? PRIESTLEY: I left them blank before Horus Heresy games were conceived! I left them blank because I wanted to give the story some kind of deep background - unknowable ten thousand year old mysteries - stuff that begs questions for which there could be no answer. Mind you all that got ruined when some bright spark decided to use the Heresy setting - which rather spoiled the unknowable side of things - but there you go! BIFFORD: Ah, this is going to amaze a lot of people on Reddit PRIESTLEY: Is it? :) BIFFORD: Yep, everyone there thinks you left two Legions blank for players to fill in. PRIESTLEY: Well - I created a thousand Chapters - of which we only gave details of a dozen or so - so there were nine hundred odd Chapters left blank for people to fill in. In the original 40K that is! The Horus Heresy stemmed from a short piece of narrative text I wrote - I think it was in Chapter Approved: The Book of the Astronomican - but I never imagined it would be used for a game setting. The trouble with the Heresy as envisaged by GW is it just feels like 40K - it doesn't have the feel of a genuinely different society that ten thousand years separation would give you. Whenever I wrote anything that referenced back to those times I always wrote in a legendary, non-literal style. It's as if you were dealing with something like the Iliad rather than literal history - and there you're only talking three thousand years - ten thousand years - that takes us back to the end of the last ice-age... and I don't get any sense of understanding about 'deep time' when I look at anything GW have set in the 40K 'past'.
BIFFORD: When did you leave Games Workshop, and why?
PRIESTLEY: Well I was made redundant so didn't have much choice in the matter! By that time I think the GW management team had changed a great deal and the business was run by people very disconnected from the hobby. The company had settled down into a very limited product range and a single-minded business model - so there was increasingly little for me to do. There were some aspects of the business that I felt were not being handled well and at that time 'other voices' were in the ascendant. I would point out that immediately after I left the whole 'finecast' project emerged - which is just the sort of thing I would normally have been involved with - but in fact I wasn't involved at all... which tells you something! GW endured seven years of poor results after I had left. They went through the whole saga of dumping WD as a monthly magazine, abandoning all social media, a very messy and controversial AoS/Warhammer relaunch, running stores as one-man affairs, withdrawing their fiction range from the book trade, and a lot of other rather misguided decisions (IMO) which resulted in poor company results, declining sales, and very poor shareholder returns. I have to say they do seem to have seen sense in the last year or so and maybe we can now look forward to 'seven plentiful years' 🙂 Many of the things that they have done recently are exactly the things I was championing before I left... you do have to wonder. Well good luck to them I say!
BIFFORD: You've created a new game called "Beyond the Gates of Antares". What does this game have to offer veteran players of Warhammer 40,000?
PRIESTLEY: Well it's a very different kind of game from the 40K that I remember - but then I haven't played 40K for a long, long time so I'm not really in a good position to say!
Overall - Antares is a game that's built as something I'd enjoy playing - with a strong narrative structure and a coherent background that is closer to classic space-opera than 40K. The game is based on the Bolt Action dice-draw system so it's not IGOUGO - and gameplay is built around manoeuvre and position. It plays very well as a fairly small game with - say - 30 or so troops a side - although you can go bigger if you want. It's D10 based not D6 and - so far - the races are based on humans and human 'morphs' though some are quite 'alien' in character.
You can download a 'free' version of the rulebook from the Warlord site. https://store.warlordgames.com/products/gates-of-antares-base-one-nexus-goa-light-rules
BIFFORD: What about lore-wise? How similar is the setting to Warhammer 40,000?
PRIESTLEY: The setting is based around this idea that umpteen millions of years ago a lost and mysterious race we call Builders constructed a series of worm-hole tunnels throughout the universe - and in fact through space and time - and that all of these tunnels emerge at a single gigantic Nexus. That Nexus exists in all of space and time - and in our universe it appears to be the start we call Antares. So - many thousands of worlds are connected together via this Nexus - and to travel from world to world you have to travel over the surface of Antares to reach whatever worm-hole gate it is you want to go to.
Over many thousand of years, these gateways have formed into empires and federations of worlds, and humans have spread throughout the Nexus as have various aliens. At times the Nexus has broken down or surface conditions on Antares have rendered the worm-holes inaccessible, and some worlds have reverted to savagery, whilst new civilizations have emerged on others. These various civilizations have become the basis for the different factions in the game, of which the biggest two are the PanHuman Concord and the Isorian Senatex.
BIFFORD: How grimdark is it? Warhammer 40,000 was a rather pessimistic setting. How is the universe in "Beyond the Gates of Antares"?
PRIESTLEY: Not at all really - it's much closer to classic space-opera and was partly inspired by Iain Banks' Culture novels as well as similiar sci-fi stories. The 40K idea was very novel at the time but that time was a long time ago 🙂
BIFFORD: So more like Star Wars?
PRIESTLEY: I'm not sure about that! Star wars is very 'magic in space' isn't it! In Antares the spacecraft are limited to sub-light speeds and movement is subject to g-force limits and time dilation effects where applicable - so it's closer to 'hard sf' than Star Wars - though we have to facilitate a game so there a few things we have to take for granted - like the wormholes themselves for example. None of this really intrudes on the game - it just constrains the way I write up the backgrounds and stories.
BIFFORD: What I meant was the themes. Star Wars is about the struggle between simplistic good and evil. Star Trek is about the virtues of curiosity and tolerance. What is the theme of Beyond the Gates of Antares?
PRIESTLEY: Nothing as simple I'm afraid! I about the struggle to maintain independence in a universe that is increasingly coming under the dominance of societies run by Integrated machine intelligence - or IMTel. So the two big factions - the Concord and the Senatex - are rival machine-led societies that are at odds because are software mutations - each believes the other is a threat - but they can't interact because any interaction results in complex security routines dispatches vast battlefleets one against the other. Most of the other societies are caught in the middle - like the Algoryn Prosperate and the nomadic Boromites. The Ghar are slightly different because they are the remnant of a genetically engineered army created some thousands of years ago in a less sophisticated era - their only ambition is to destroy humanity - but are currently engaged in a civil war due to some unexpected mutation in their clone vats.
The idea is that if a society manages to interact with another the technology of the more powerful society starts to infiltrate the weaker one - so often they are driven to fight over strategically important wormholes just to maintain their borders and keep the enemy at a distance! The Freeborn are a spaceborn race who can interact with pother societies thanks to the very powerful nano-sterilisers on their ships - basically they can purge harmful elements from technology they find allowing them to act a traders, middle-men and mercenaries.
BIFFORD: The Imperium often argues that its brutal methods towards fighting aliens, daemons, and heretics are necessary and the best possible solution. But in fact the Imperium is self-deceiving - it THINKS this is the only way humanity survive. There are better ways it could do things, but that would require profound reforms that the elite don't want. The Imperium thus protects the interests of the elite at the expense of the masses. Its solution to problems is always to ask for more sacrifice. Do you agree? Is this what you envisioned?
PRIESTLEY: I never imagined 'The Imperium' thought about it at all 🙂 Different factions within what I think I called the High Lords of Terra pursue their own agendas - some more rational than others - but there was always this element of psykers posing a genuine danger to humanity that legitimized 'witch hunts' and a certain amount of interference - at least that was the idea to start with. I always thought of individual worlds as being the personal fiefdoms of their planetary lords - hardly touched by the Imperium as such - indeed how could they be when they might be separated by decades of travel from Terra. So - I always imagined some worlds were perfectly nice and peaceful (until the Orks turn up!) others were largely forgotten about and a few had more-or-less become independant and self-sufficient by necessity. As the background evolved it became very samey - and the universe I had created to be varied and diverse became just one thing - one big war front - but such is the way I'm afraid.
Also - you have to consider the possibility that this 'IS' the only way humanity can survive 🙂
BIFFORD: Ah, I suspected this. You mentioned to me last week that you envisioned the Imperium as a more diverse place when I raised the question of the Adeptus Mechanicus. Games Workshop took the Imperium in a direction you didn't intend to go.
PRIESTLEY: True - but them I never considered that 40K would become the basis for the company and hobby that exists today! As 40K grew and become more important others took over the roles of developing the games - I changed my own role and progressed to run the studio and became the design director for the business - so you have to let others loose on your creation. Remember - when I created 40K GW was turning over less than 10 million pounds a year (probably a great deal less but I didn't get to know these things until later) by the time of the management buy out (of which I was a very small part) in c1990/91 it was 10 million, within a few years it was a 100 million turn-over company, so we had to grow up very fast!
BIFFORD: In most WH40K books, there is at the front a short blurb that begins with the sentence: "It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of His inexhaustible armies." What did you mean by "the will of the gods"? Did you mean the Chaos Gods? Or some other gods that no longer exist in the lore?
PRIESTLEY: It's deliberately hyperbolic - it might be a figure of speech - it might not - and too be honest I think it works because of that!
BIFFORD: If you were to return to Games Workshop and given full creative control over Warhammer 40,000, what changes would you implement?
PRIESTLEY: Ah I'm afraid that boat has long-since sailed! The way the game has developed is very closely integrated into the business and that pretty much ties your hands when it comes to the creative part of the job. In many ways - there is no need for creativity in the sense in which it was part of GW in the 80s and 90s - and that's kinda why I'm not there anymore and why I wouldn't go back even if the chance arose!
I should add that GW seem to be doing very well for themselves at the moment and sales are at record levels. They must be doing something right even if the 'GW hobby' is not necessarily something I recognize or which I'd enjoy. But I am not their target market am I?
BIFFORD: What inspired the Emperor of Mankind? You mentioned the Dune novels. What other influences, if any, were there?
PRIESTLEY: That a bit of an open question really - it's not an easy one to answer! there are some parallels with the story arc in Dune and especially with God Emperor of Dune - and the whole series has that very deep sense of time and history which is something I always liked. It's a great series and if you've not read it I suggest you do! However, in God Emperor of Dune Leto (the son of Paul the main character in the first book) is an actual character - albeit hugely transformed - where in the 40K backstory the Emperor's state of awareness is much more nebulous - the nature of the Imperium as portrayed in the background is really an invention of the self-serving Ecclesiarchy. The parallel - and I'm only drawing a parallel and not implying that 40K has any spiritual or religious basis - is the way in which the Christian church developed in the early centuries AD - the Emperor becomes a 'god' because he is treated as a god and a whole culture and belief system grows up around that. Which is why the Space Marines don't sit entirely comfortably within the Imperium - they are pre-'Emperor' and their traditions belong to a different and more rational age. Of course, all that has largely disappeared from the canon over the years - so you have to remember I'm talking about the original creation. GW's re-write has always been a lot simpler and - I sorry to say -crass! It's become what I sometimes summarise as 'Waaagh the Emperor!' - but the original idea was that the Space Marines have an older and more direct relationship with the Emperor analogous to that of the Knights Templar as keepers of the Holy Grail and so forth - I'm not saying that stuff is 'real' only that there's the parallel! The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (book) had just come out at the time and I remember reading that - it's the book Dan Brown based The Da Vinci Code on. Hence you get a natural friction between the different factions within the Imperium - most of which are dependent upon willful self-delusion to some extent. Again - I draw the parallel with the history of the Christian church - the Great Schism - endless heresies and sectarianism - factions hunted down and destroyed (Prussian Crusade for example) and so on. In that respect, the Emperor in the 40K backstory is as much based on history as upon any fictional influences.
BIFFORD: The Emperor of Mankind has a curious position in the Imperium. All-powerful, yet helpless at the same time. There's a contrast there between him and the God-Emperor of Dune: Leto II lives, takes part in affairs of state, and ultimately accomplishes his grand plan for humanity; whereas the Emperor of the Imperium is a helpless being who cannot communicate his will, and has to watch his Imperium go in a direction completely opposite to what he envisioned. Is there is any specific parallel in history or fiction that inspired this?
PRIESTLEY: It can be compared the the early history of Christianity leading to schism, sectarianism, religiously inspired wars, etc. I think the idea was always that the Emperor's relationship to humanity is very ethereal - as perceived through a dream state - woven into the pivot points in history - touching upon reality only here and there - and perhaps not at all!
BIFFORD: I want to ask you specifically about the Astronomican. The Emperor is a half-dead thing who is only capable of generating a beacon to guide ships in the Warp. Was this entirely your idea, or did you crib it from some other work?
PRIESTLEY: I don't recall taking that specific idea from anywhere - I think I can lay claim to that one! The idea of a guiding light or navigational beacon isn't exactly original of course - and that's what the Astonomican is. The name is obviously inspired by the Necronomican - i.e. Lovecraft. You get similar concepts when you look at the idea of astral bodies and such like - i.e. read Dennis Wheatley and that tradition of magic and spiritualism Dennis Wheatley derived his fiction from. BIFFORD: You developed quite an elaborate fictional setting for Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, and later writers have developed it further in countless novels and supplements. But why bother with a fictional setting for a wargame at all? What's the point? Many wargames don't bother with a story. Chainmail and the earliest editions of Warhammer Fantasy did not have a setting. Is it because WH40K was originally conceived as a roleplaying game, and you foresaw that gamesmasters would need some material to work with? Was it, as I suspect, to encourage players to buy and use only Citadel WH40K miniatures in the game, on the grounds that using miniatures from other games wouldn't feel right? Or was it simply to foster player enthusiasm? What did your bosses have in mind when they asked you to develop a story for WH40K? PRIESTLEY: I don't think any of my bosses asked me to do anything - the setting and narrative development was just something I felt was a part and parcel of the game. With a SF or fantasy game there was always an expectation that there would be a setting of some sort, and with SF you need to give the story some kind of background in terms of society and technology. I didn't do it because I thought it would be commercial or because anyone told me too -it's just how I see these things - as stories and 'real' places and people - world creation - all that!