Stormbringer – In discussion with Ken St Andre

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“The task of a game like Stormbringer is to transcribe the essence of someone’s imagination into numerical and descriptive form so that it can be easily manipulated in the form of rules. The task of the gamers is to take those numbers and flesh them out in their own imaginations, to recreate the storytelling experience in their own minds while playing.”

— Ken St. Andre, Heroic Worlds (1991)

I promised in the podcast (Stormbringer Episode 5 (Part 1)) that I would provide the transcript of the Twinterview  (as no-one is calling them) that we had with Ken St Andre that was used in the ‘Potted History Section’ of the episode. It was a very enlightening exchange, where we couldn’t help gushing towards this legendary figure in the world of gaming. He showed great humility in the face of our giddy excitement.

MOONBEAM ROADS

The conversation was brokered by @dailydwarf (DD) who invited Blythy (JB) and myself (Dirk) to join in with The Trollfather himself … Ken St Andre (KsA).

DD: My 13 year old self just exploded. I’ll start with the obvious question – did you have any contact with Michael Moorcock prior to starting work on your game, or during development?

KsA: No. I’ve never met Michael or even talked to him or corresponded with him. I just liked his sword and sorcery books, especially Elric.

Dirk: I really admire your work, because your games always remind everyone that games are meant to be fun, not difficult, which had a positive influence on how we played. What came first? Chaosium’s licence or were you playing in the Young Kingdoms in your own games?

KsA: Back about 1974 I went to graduate school at the University of Arizona, and roomed with a guy who was Diplomacy master; he ran games for other players. Fantasy variants of Diplomacy. A year later when I got back home I grew interested in running fantasy diplomacy variant games of my own. One of the first that I created was a Young Kingdoms variant. It may be on file in a diplomacy bank somewhere, I don’t have it any more.

Then Chaosium got the license to do a game based on Elric. I heard about that and wrote to Greg Stafford with my proposition for how the game should be done. Chaosium accepted me, and I started work on the game by rereading all the Elric stories I had–there were only 2 slim volumes back then–Stormbringer and The Stealer of Souls.

I loved the Elric stories almost as much as Howard’s Conan stories. Still do. I identify with Elric much more than with Conan.

JB: How hard was it to collaborate designing the game? How did the collaboration work?

KsA: Originally I wrote the complete game by myself with Steve Perrin assigned to be my editor. In the process of finishing the document, Steve added significant contributions dealing with religious alignment and the information about various gods of the Young Kingdoms. I thought his contributions were enough to warrant listing him as a co-author instead of just an editor, so that’s what we did.

Dirk: Were Chaosium precious about the BRP mechanics being part of the game? You do an excellent job of making Moorcock’s vision work as a game. What aspect of the Young Kingdoms presented the most challenges for the games design?

KsA: Thank you for the compliment.

I’m not sure what you mean about “precious” for Chaosium. They pretty much insisted that the basic game mechanics come from BRP, but let me go ahead and modify it into a true D100 system instead of D20.

You know that in the early Elric stories Moorcock gave only the vaguest description of how magic worked. It looked to me like everything he did involved some kind of summoning of external, supernatural forces, and so I decided to go with magic based on summoning and subduing demons and elementals. That was, I think, the trickiest part of the game design.

I was kind of proud of the whole combat/skills system. As for sorcerers, they are meant to be insanely powerful and deadly–every single one that I saw in MM’s stories fit that pattern. Any wizard who was incompetent would have killed himself early.

DD: Was there anything you wanted to include in Stormbringer but didn’t, for reasons of brevity / time?

I actually wanted to make the game more complex than they allowed me to. Because of the strong implications of Chaos in the Moorcock books, I wanted to base things on the number 8. So the copper coin was the low currency, the silver coin was worth 8 times as much as copper, and gold was worth 64 times as much as silver. That isn’t actually very far from the ratios of their values on Earth. The Melnibonean Wheel would have been worth 500 times as much as gold coin. Too complicated said Charlie Krank and the Chaosium editors. Multiples of 10 said they. Grrr said I, but they were the publishers. Aside from that, I pretty much got my way with what went into the rules.

stormbringer interior

WHITE WOLF

JB: Have you ever played Elric?

KsA: Have I ever played their successor (to Stormbringer) game? No. Don’t know anyone who has, actually. Really only played Stormbringer half a dozen times or so back when it was a new release and I would demo it at cons. 95% of my roleplaying is just Tunnels and Trolls for the last decade or so.

JB: I meant did you ever play Elric as a player in stormbringer? We never have out of some strange sense of reverence.

KsA: No, I never played Elric himself in any game I ran or was part of. That would take a lot of hubris.

DD: I agree about not playing characters from the stories. It felt redundant; those stories had already been told, and the Young Kingdoms was such a rich backdrop I was eager to tell new stories. (Moorcock’s characters might be referenced as “off-screen” NPCs, but that was it.)

KsA: We feel the same way about playing actual characters from the books. And that is why there are no stats given for Elric, Moonglum, Rackhir or any of the others.

DD: The thing I really liked about Stormbringer was that, because I’d read the Moorcock  stories, I had a “way in” to understanding and developing the backdrop, crucial to making games exciting and fun. This was in contrast to how I felt about Glorantha at the time, which just seemed overwhelming in its level of detail.

KsA: With an extensive fictional background for a rpg, the game should feel like it has more depth than just some made-up frpg off the shelf. I’m sure that’s why Forgotten Realms was developed for That Other Game; also why so many licensed products from fiction have appeared over the years. Middle Earth, Conan, Elfquest, etc.

JB: Thanks for answering our questions and for your huge contribution to games we love.

KsA: I’m happy to help, guys.

THE END OF TIME

I also contacted Steve Perrin for his memories of the creative process for Stormbringer, he added the following:

I was attached as a sort of developer early on in the process. I started the process as a freelancer/contractor, but by the time we were done I was a full-time Chaosium employee.

What we had initially was Ken’s description of the Young Kingdoms and Melnibone and notes on how demons and elementals would work.

I okayed the idea of randomly determined armor and made sure that Ken didn’t take us on a journey too far away from BRP (which had not been written yet). He chose the idea that all the magic was elementals or demons.

I also invented the Virtuous weapons and armor, as some kind of counterbalance to the Chaotic powers of demon weapons.

– Steve Perrin

I’ve been curious about the movement away from Stormbringer and towards the rebranded rehash that was Elric!. There was also an interesting shift away from the concept of an ‘Eternal Champion’ series of RPGs in the mid-80s (Hawkmoon and the promise of Corum) back towards more Elric related material.  On the internet there have been reports of a public dispute between Moorcock and Choasium towards the end of their relationship with each other, although this has been mainly expressed as opinion rather than based in facts.

I contacted Rick Meints, President at Choasium, to help piece together these gaps. He wasn’t around when the decisions about Stormbringer were being made, but he offered to help clarify some of the missing pieces in the story. He confirmed that Moorcock didn’t participate in the creation of the Stormbringer material, nor did he even review/ approve most of it, although review copies were sent via his agent. Moorcock couldn’t have been too unhappy along the way because he not only renewed the licence with Chaosium twice, but he also extended the range of material they were allowed to publish. That said, towards the end of the licence they did have a disagreement and the reason for this depends upon who you ask, “Chaosium folks and Michael Moorcock tell very different stories.”

It seems that one of the problems was dealing with intermediaries who were not great at passing things on to Moorcock. The extra filter caused a breakdown in communications. Chaosuim has been in contact with Moorcock’s agent to check the status of the licence and to ensure that outstanding royalties have been settled.

I’ve also written to Moorcock to get his side of the story, I’ve not heard anything back yet, I’ll share it here if I do.

The intellectual property rights for the worlds and characters are with Moorcock. The RPG material copyright is owned by Chaosuim. It would require both to agree in order to kick start a reprint. There’s no sign of that happening at the moment.

If I draw an octagon on the floor. Incant some words. Perhaps, with Arioch’s aid, we’ll make it happen.

Thanks to Ken, Steve and Rick for their help and interesting contributions.

Dirk the Dice

In other news: Thanks to the support of our Patreons, we have hit the first goal to produce a PDF fanzine later in the year. The podcasts are free, but the Patreon will help us to seek out interesting stuff to cover and support additional projects like the fanzine. If you’d like to participate and chuck some coins in the beret, you’ll find it here: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=1004643&ty=h

 

One thought on “Stormbringer – In discussion with Ken St Andre

  1. I believe it was in 1998 that I attended my first ever Fantasy convention in the USA (LepreCon or CopperCon) in Phoenix, AZ. I had been to conventions (more like Meet Ups) in Germany before but this was the real deal and I triode to get as many new experiences in as possible. Determined to try an RPG that I hadn’t played before I signed up for a game of Tunnels & Trolls. The Game Master was a nice man in the his mid 40’s (i guessed) wearing a Fedora hat. After a short rules explanation of about 10 minutes our party (one member of which was a young girl of about 18, the daughter of the GM as it turned out) was of to its adventure. And it was awesome! We had about a 3 hour romp through a dungeon which much hilarity and action. To this day I fondly remember that fun adventure and the RPG T&T.
    You will have guessed by now: The GM was non other than Ken St Andre.

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