Interview with Gav Thorpe

Gav Thorpe has always been very open and active with various online communities for GW games, and I had talked with him first during the Storm of Chaos, and a few times more when I was the admin of Ulthuan.net.  When I first started this blog, my main goal was to write about my own escapades and promote GW gaming in Omaha, but I also wanted to reach out and attract a broader audience as well.  I asked Gav if he’d be willing to do an interview for this site and he was more than willing – and let me tell you I got some nice, thorough responses.  So without further delay, here is what Gav had to say:

Me: Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.  First, let’s start with what you’re up to now.  Raven’s Flight is out now as an audio book and has gotten some pretty positive praise from the different 40k forums.  What was it like producing an audio book?

Gav: Yes, Raven’s Flight seems to have been well-received, leaving aside debates about the size of Legions! On the whole the process is not so different from writing a short story. An audiobook is about ten thousand words long in manuscript form, so I used this as a guide for the scope and size of the type of story that can be told. The big difference comes with the way the story is written. Since the audience will be listening to the narrator, there are different things that you can do with descriptions and dialogue that make it easier for people to absorb the information. The other great thing is the ability to use other effects to tell the story. I didn’t do so much of this with Raven’s Flight, but the next audiobook – Aenarion – uses the format even more.

I haven’t had a chance to attend a recording yet, but I would like to. It’d be nice to meet the person putting the voices to the characters I’ve created.

Me: When I look at your other releases, you’ve got Malekith released a year ago, in January your book Alith Anar was released, and now this summer you’ve got Path of the Warrior coming out about the Eldar.  Take that and toss in your Eldar codex and Dark Elf armybook – I’ve got to ask what appeal elves/space elves have for you?

Gav:  Well, I’ve been a huge fan of the Eldar for many years, ever since the arrival of the new-style race in White Dwarf 127. I’ve generally been more of a Dwarfs fan for Warhammer, but the Elves’ history is, along with the Dwarfs, the most exciting and epic tale in all of Warhammer so I thought it’d be great stuff for some novels. It’s nice to deal with characters involved in huge, larger-than-life events but also to ensure that they have the same complex personalities as any other character, with their own strengths and weaknesses, fears and ambitions.

The trick has been to keep the two distinct in my mind. Though the Eldar are elves in space and there are some similarities, they do have a distinct character from Warhammer elves. The whole point of the trilogy is to look at and think through the concept of the Eldar Path. You have this mechanism by which the Eldar systematically shut-off and open up different parts of their psyche so that they can develop in a way that is not dangerous. I always have quite a strong theme of psychological examination in my stories, even if they are quite subdued in the text itself, and the opportunity to explore such a complex psychological construct as an Eldar mind is fantastic. Human characters develop over the course of a story just like real people change in real life. However, they essentially hone their personalities, beliefs, priorities and so on. With the Eldar, you have these characters that completely re-invent themselves periodically, becoming an entirely different person when they step from one Path to the next.

I find it fascinating to think about what creates personality, the sense of self, and the division between conscious and subconscious decisions. Path of the Warrior and the other Eldar Path novels will look at different aspects of this alien nature – as well as each giving me the opportunity to delve into various parts of Eldar life. The first concentrates on the Aspect Warriors and the Eldar way of war, the second is focussed on the psychic nature of the Eldar, and the third deals with Eldar away from the craftworlds, meeting Harlequins and other strange folk of the Eldar race. Hopefully people won’t expect everything to be covered in detail in the first novel, but by the end of the trilogy will have a deeper, rounded experience of the Eldar and their mysterious ways.

Me: Okay, you talk about Eldar being able to open up and shut off different parts of themselves – is that just part of the Eldar mind or was that developed as part of Eldar civilization … and if that’s the case are we talking before or after the fall?

Gav: It’s my take that Eldar consciousness and memory is far more intricate and complex than the human mind; a natural result of their heightened physical and psychic sensitivity. This enables the Eldar to hone in on very specific details of experience. Pre-Fall, this led the Eldar to explore the most intimate, exquisite sensation in minute detail; post-Fall, through the Path the Craftworld Eldar are able to learn to activate and deactivate different parts of this sensory, conscious and sub-conscious maze so that while they can still experience a certain part of their lives to the fullest extent, they are not overwhelmed by it. There are parts of Path of the Warrior during which the main character Korlandril experiences present sensation, dream and memory – not even always his own memories! – in exactly the same way. The Eldar do not simply remember past events, they relive them precisely, whether that event is real or imagined. In terms of the narrative, this forms loops, repetitions and flashbacks but all are presented without distinction. Hopefully it doesn’t get too confusing for readers!

Me: You also mentioned that you’ll move away from the craftworlds in the third book.  Will we see some focus on the Dark Eldar then?

Gav: The Dark Eldar have cameo roles throughout the trilogy. In the fullness of time, I’d like to do a whole novel or series on the Dark Eldar, but until there’s a new Codex and certain things are ‘officially’ expanded – whenever that might be – it would be risky getting too involved with them.

Me: Will we get to see mention of the Exodites?

Gav: Path of the Outcast will spend some time on a Maiden World.

Me: Looking more broadly at the Black Library now, in the same month, you’ve got A Thousand Sons making it as a New York Times best selling novel, the announcement that several famous actors are going to be providing voices for the Ultramarines Movie, and the release of a highly reviewed expansion for Dawn of War 2.  It appears that the 40k franchise is becoming rather mainstream – are all these advances leaving the actual tabletop game in the dust, or is it helping to expose the game to people who otherwise wouldn’t have known about it?

Gav: There have always been periodic ‘mainstream’ recruiters into 40K and Warhammer. Back in my youth, a lot of folks were introduced through HeroQuest and Space Crusade. Later on, it was the Lord of the Rings Licence, and now the focus comes more from the computer games. For all that, most folks still get connected to Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 through friends at school, walking into a store, or picking up an issue of White Dwarf.

On a parallel topic, the imagery and style of Warhammer and 40K has been bubbling around various creative industries for many years. It is surprising the number of gamers or miniatures collectors who crop up in computer games, writing, TV and film, and they’ve been there for a couple of decades. So, I think the influence of Games Workshop has become much more visible, but it’s been there behind the scenes for a lot longer.

Me: Speaking of computer games and Games Workshop, has anyone ever told you that Warhammer and 40k copy their source from Warcraft and Starcraft?  It was funny to hear so many people say Warhammer Online copied the look and feel from World of Warcraft.

Gav: I’ve never had anybody directly accuse me to my face that GW lifted ideas from Warcraft/ Starcraft, but I have seen such things on forums like everybody else. There’s no need to point out the error of this view, there’s always plenty of GW fans ready to correct the mistake! I do enjoy a lot of the conspiracy theories regarding the origins, evolutions and relationships between GW and Blizzard. Pretty much all of them are totally wrong.

Me: Since we’re moving towards games development questions, I’ve got to ask: if you could choose the ideal world, would you stick with what you’re doing now with freelance writing or would you be a games developer?

Gav: In an ideal world I’d be a freelancer with the regular wages of a games developer! The two are very different challenges. Much of the work of a games developer isn’t tapping at the keyboard writing background and putting points values on models, it is working with other Studio staff like designers, editors, artists and managers. Freelance is all about flying it solo.

All things considered, I enjoy the freedom of being freelance more than anything else, and I would find it very hard to return to a more rigid, company-based work style.

Me: Games Workshop’s investor report came out showing they posting a $23.4 million improvement from ’08 to ’09, largely because they found ways to cut costs and streamline operations.  It was rumored for a while they would go to having just one employee running shops, and this was confirmed in the investor report that most of the newly opened stores are run by a single employee.  Although cost saving is what improved GW’s financial outlook a lot, a lot of players think cutting down to one employee hurts their ability to attract new gamers with demo games and other events.  Being both an avid gamer and someone who’s seen the business side of things – do you agree with GW’s decision?  Do you agree with people that having only one employee in the store hurts the overall game atmosphere?

Gav: I can see that there might be practical issues arising from this type of arrangement – someone wants a demo game whilst someone else wants to pay. On the other hand, if a store is busy enough that this happens a lot, it’s probably also got enough customers to warrant extra staff. I did a signing fairly recently at such a store and there did not seem to be any particular problems. As long as staffing levels are taken as pragmatic rather than dogmatic decisions, there should be no reason why this cannot work. If anything, I have some sympathy for the lone ranger store guys, I am sure it’s a lot of bloody hard work.

As for atmosphere, I think it’s just as important that customers are having fun, helping each other and creating that sense of community. While staff members can act as catalysts for games and events in stores, it is the players that participate that create a welcoming, fun atmosphere more – communities of all hobbies are always better at creating and maintaining themselves than any corporate entity.

Me: Recently, an American Warhammer player qualified to the Las Vegas GT using the Indy Chaos Dwarf armybook at one of the Indy GTs.  Will GW ever consider Chaos Dwarfs profitable/large enough to consider doing as a full fledged army book?  Would YOU personally want to see the Chaos Dwarfs get some love?

Gav: I can’t speak for GW’s attitude to whether another Warhammer army would be profitable, but I can say that within the design-types in the Studio and above, there was always the belief that Chaos Dwarfs could be a great army. I was involved on-and-off with various proposals and discussions about Chaos Dwarfs over the years, and there is huge scope for a very cool army, background and range of miniatures.

Given how long it has been, it would be a completely new army, resource-wise. Having seen how much is involved with the Tau, Ogre Kingdoms, the re-dos of the Bretonnians and Wood Elves, I can safely say that it is a big chunk of schedule to commit to one project, and that can be a risky proposition. You could probably produce the equivalent of Apocalypse or Cities of Death and support half a dozen armies with a few releases each for the same amount of resource invested in creating a whole new army – which is better for the hobby? It’s an impossible question to answer, there are pros and cons to both courses of action.

On a purely selfish level, I would always plump for the new army option, but there are lots of real-world consequences about retail space, ongoing support and ‘catalogue’ size that weigh against it.

Me:  Rule and armybook development has always been rather hush-hush and closed door affair at GW.  A lot of people (myself included) would like some more transparency in the process.  You were willing to let Ulthuan.net submit a list of concerns and suggestions when the 7th ed High Elf list was being worked on, but playtesting and rule development has never been completely open to community testing.  On the other hand, Privateer Press just released the 2nd edition of their ruleset after having a Field Test where players could download the new rules and give them feedback.  Do you think “field tests” are valuable?  In your opinion, should GW consider doing something like this?

Feedback is only as good as the ability of the design team to collate and respond to it. It is also important not to get hoodwinked into thinking that you are addressing everybody’s issues when in fact the people the most likely to respond are those with heavy bias and a vested interest. There are many examples of companies across various industries – tabletop games, roleplaying, even professional wrestling – that ended up disappearing up their own backsides because they got caught in a circle of pandering to an ever more minor part of their audience and forgot the rest of their customers.

Also, companies that heavily trial material – like computer games studios – have entire customer support departments dedicated to assimilating that feedback. On projects with budgets of millions of pounds that is entirely reasonable, it isn’t so straightforward with a much smaller team like the Games Dev dept… Bearing in mind that the GW Studio works on roughly eight-to-ten projects a year, that’s a lot of different things going on at the same time to keep track of, not only for them but also for customers.

I also think that there is a genuine danger of death by committee if you try to incorporate everybody’s opinion into a project. Let’s take two extremes – the hardcore tournament gamer and the fluffy collector that just likes to push toy soldiers around. The first wants balance, strict definitions and tight control over what is in people’s armies. The second wants freedom, opportunity to express creativity and flexibility to explore their own vision of what constitute an appropriate army or entertaining scenario. Generally the opinion of the first group is the most vocal, and also carries disproportionate weight to the number of players that actually participate in that sort of gaming. As I’ve mentioned on forums and my blog before, the right to give feedback is for everybody, but it often creates a misplaced sense of entitlement. As soon as I ask you your opinion, you expect me to accept it and act on it, even if I disagree. It’s important not to act in a way that promises something that won’t be delivered.

Me: Okay, let’s change the angle a little bit.   Would you be opposed to having more public play testing to avoid underpowered/overpowered entries, broken combos, etc. in a similar way to beta testing a computer game?

Gav: There are two areas that feedback is useful for developers – army ‘balance’ and clarity. To take the second first, anything that ensures that a written rule is clear and covers 90% of tabletop situations would be useful. Balance is a much trickier proposition, because there are so many variables involved. I also think that is is a genuine concern that a release of a new book could become a non-event because it’s been given out in dribs and drabs for months… Generally, a Codex or army book will be finished at least half a year before it actually hits the shelves, which means any meaningful feedback would have to be gathered at least nine months before release. The other problem is that many ‘balance’ issues might arise from new units or other elements being introduced to an army, and I can see that spoiling the surprise (to put it bluntly) by releasing details of that unit so early would be counter-productive.

With regard to the general rules rather than the specifics of armies, I think it would be great if the developers could throw out ideas to the gaming public on a constant basis. For instance, not that long after 6th edition came out, Jake Thornton wrote a Warhammer Chronicles article that had different ways of using power and dispel dice in the Magic phase. There’s no reason why there cannot be a dialogue (time permitting) between the developers and gamers, but I don’t think too much importance should be attached to any particular ‘trial rule’. When you flag up something like that, you start creating a false expectation. You are also only addressing a small proportion of the gaming public, because as hard as some people find it to believe, there are large swathes of 40K and Warhammer players that get along with the games just fine, without all of the hand-wringing and analysis that armchair developers love to indulge in. The probelm is, developers are the same kind of super-rules-nerds and it’s their instinct to overlay their own predilictions and priorities onto the whole gaming public.

Often there is a pendulum affect on games development, WD content and attitudes to experimental rules. The games dev team were in a large way responsible for abusing WD with too many Index Astartes and Chapter Approved articles. The response to this was to stop all of that stuff in its entirety. I have no inside track, but I do get a sense that things are slowly relaxing again – the Blood Angels army list (now, of course, no longer needed), additional Apocalypse datasheets, new 40k Missions on the webpage and so on. I don’t think we’ll ever be back in the so-called glory days of Army-List-a-month, and for good reason.

As I recently mentioned on my Facebook page, sometimes the worst people to have in charge of games development are games developers!

Me: Now I’ve also got to ask, since you talk about minority over-representation and catering to a crowd that simply has a louder voice, do you regret the Dark Elf revision you did with Druchi.net?

Gav: No, not at all. I approached the revision with very specific objective in mind – that the Dark Elf army book I had written was not felt to be as ‘cool’ as it could be by the players themselves. I wasn’t really bothered about wider balance issues, or the meta-game. Most of the feedback and revisions ended up being canned and under instruction I made just a few simple changes. However, that feedback nestled in my mind (and on my computer) to be looked at again for the latest Dark Elf book. I usually give the same advice to players on this topic – as a developer I like to learn what issues players have with the rules and armies, but absolutely reserve the right to disagree or, if I agree, to determine the solutions required. By nature, developers are largely problem-solvers, so simply trying to tell them what your answer is to a problem isn’t going to stick; passing on an issue you think they should address, that’s something else.

Me:  So rather than demand specific solutions, the players should simply try to express the problems with the current codex/army book/ruleset?

Gav: The short answer is that every time someone talks to a developer at an event, or writes a letter, they are helping to inform the next iteration of the rules. The development of the games systems is an eternal, ongoing process.

In the past we tried various trial rules projects, from the ‘get-you-by’ White Dwarf lists for the likes of Lizardmen after the release of 6th edition, to the 40K Trial Assault rules. Some were successful – the Warhammer lists were very useful for trying out ideas before we committed to army books – while some, like Chapter Approved caused some confusion and consternation.

Fundamentally, the strength of Warhammer and 40K is the ability to take your army, rulebook and army book to a club, store, friend’s house or whatever and play a game with the minimum of fuss. Once the integrity of that basic material – the rulebook and Codex – starts becoming grey, you introduce an area of doubt.

We used to have the Citadel Journal, and later the Annuals, for all the wackier, experimental stuff, but for various reasons they were dropped. Part of the problem is the immensely broad market that the designers must cater for, from the gamer that has just walked into the local GW to the grizzled vet that had been playing since the 1980’s. Trying to stream a quite complex message about what are the ‘right’ rules or not to different parts of the gaming community is quite a challenge.

As I mentioned before, the community (or communities) are best placed to decide what they want from the games and to take responsibility for the consequences – without needing any kind of official endorsement from GW. It was this idea of the stamp of approval (Chapter Approved, literally!) that started muddying the waters. If Tournament X wants to run with additional restrictions, while Campaign Z allows fan-made army lists, players are free to pick and choose, rather than limit the choices of players by forcing GW to support one route over the other.

My last point would be to say that it is important not to get too focussed on purely the rules aspect of the gaming hobby. Privateer Press have a very game-centric attitude to their systems and attract players who are drawn to that outlook. Would players give feedback on ‘trial background’? What about ‘trial colour schemes’?

Me:  Given that last point, and when you said that it is best left to the communities to decide the game, do you believe that the mindset of GW games is to leave them open to interpretation rather than have a very rigid, concise set of rules?

Gav: The rules themselves should always be as clear as possible for the vast majority of gaming situations. As Rick P so eloquently put it, rules should be written with clarity, brevity and wit. Brevity is an important one to remember – GWs books have to be accessible to those just picking up the game. It is possible to cover every single instance of a rule interacting with other rules, but to do so in such a way that the main rule becomes obscured beneath a range of caveats and counterpoints is self-defeating. It is also counterproductive to spend a page expanding a rule to cover a situation that would only occur in very few, very specific circumstances. GW rulebooks are quite clear on this point – if the players can genuinely find no hard and fast ruling and cannot agree on an interpretation, they should roll a dice to see what happens. This is deliberately arbitrary, sets no precedent for the rest of the game and allows the players to get on with the important bit – playing the game. When all other avenues have failed, why not just leave it up to the dice to decide – it’s not like the players are going to agree no matter what additional guidance might be given.

I play a lot of games – mostly board games these days. Tabletop miniatures games are exceptionally flexibile, or have very abstract rules to cope with felxibility, but even relatively simple board games can give rise to pages and pages of FAQs, many of which are driven by wishful thinking, deliberate lawyering or not simply reading the rules properly. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of legitimate questions that crop up and should be addressed by the developers, but to point out that a proportion of questions I was sent as Loremaster were highly theoretical and so unlikely to occur during an actual game that one might as well revert to the ‘roll a D6’ method for the sake of brevity.

The longer I was in games dev, and the longer I’ve been away from it, the greater my belief that ‘less is more’ applies to rules and rules-writing. The more a system is written, re-written and cluttered up, the less elegant it becomes and I’m really not very keen on the ‘special rules’ arms race that can take over a system. A few simple, significant differences are far better than a haze of tiny alterations and shallow choices. In some ways, the more straightforward the official rules are, the more space you leave for those players that wish to expand on them.

Me: Okay, lastly I’m going to hit home a little bit.  Some people felt the ending to Storm of Chaos was … well … disappointing.  It felt like all the major players showed up and … nothing happened.  I mean, I’m pretty sure Archaon should be a spawn right now.  What happened?  Is the goal to keep the background stable so that way it simply serves as backdrop for people’s armies rather than an advancing plot?  I know your time as Loremaster is done, but do you think there will ever be a massive advancement in the plot line?

Gav: The main intent of Storm of Chaos was to bring the conflicts of the Warhammer world into a stark present. It was never meant to be a continuing narrative, but was a move to highlight the idea of a world at war. It was a beginning rather than an end – the Dark Elves are invading Ulthuan, the forces of Chaos are invading the Old World, the Tomb Kings are prosecuting their war against the living, the Orcs are on the rampage. This took those ideas out of the history and into the present. The outcome of the campaign was to decide the specifics of that new ‘present age’, and then the setting would freeze again.

Given that much of the timeline has been wound back to exclude the events of the Storm of Chaos, I cannot see any other advancements in the future.

Regarding Archaon and spawn, it’s time for me to wheel out a well-worn rant! People need to stop attributing human notions of success and failure to the Chaos Gods. Players have focussed on a very specific rules incident that’s been around a while – a fleeing Champion gets turned into a Spawn – and created an entirely warped (ha ha!) idea around what the Chaos Gods think of mortals. A Spawn is a Champion that has been given too many gifts! It is not a punishment… Archaon in particular has survived a long time without any significant mutation at all, and for all we know the Chaos Gods don’t really care about him one way or another. The Lord of the End Times, the Champion of Light, even Sigmar reborn are all mortal constructs created to help them make sense of the ultimately senseless and Chaotic. The blur between reality, myth, religion and magic in Warhammer is so intense that there are no dividing lines between what is a priest and a wizard, a champion and a failure. Just as in the real world, any individual claiming to do something in a god’s cause is no closer to knowing their deity’s will than anybody else…

Me: Okay, now I’ve got to ask – you said the Storm of Chaos was supposed to set the stage for the Warhammer world, yet you also just said that the new armybooks have wound back to exclude those very events.  What gives?

Gav: The only diplomatic reply I can give to that is ‘because some people within GW didn’t like Storm of Chaos and would prefer to pretend it never happened.

Well, that pretty much wraps up the interview.   I want to thank Gav for taking time away from his rather busy schedule to answer my questions, and give quite a lengthy interview (this post is roughly 4900 words!).  I hope you enjoyed his answers – to get a glimpse into the perspective of the “other side” is always interesting.  I have to say I disagree on some issues, as I’ve gravitated towards the more competitive, tournament aspect of the hobby, but I can’t say I don’t understand his perspective. Post your thoughts here!

Update: I did ask him one follow up question.  Looking back at what he said in the interview, he emphasized minimizing special rules, and focusing more on a core ruleset that you can tap.  I asked him how he felt about recent codices, specifically the Blood Angles and its grapples, melta-immune drop ships, and assault troops.  Here was his response:

I would never be the one throwing stones from the sideline, so I won’t comment on specific rules or particular books. As a matter of principle, I adhere to the ethos of The Incredibles – ‘If everybody is special, then nobody is’! Each rule needs to have a specific, and clear, purpose. That purpose has to be part of an overall vision for a game or army, otherwise one ends up with a patchwork that lacks a central theme or dynamic. Whilst acknowledging that Codex: Chaos Space Marines went too far towards the sparse side, I would use a magic wand to create a lovely, elegant system where simple changes like a point of WS or 6″ extra range on a gun would be considered a meaningful and characterful differentiation… As much of the response to C: CSM shows, such a view is not always shared by players!

10 thoughts on “Interview with Gav Thorpe”

  1. Very interesting. I genuinely like Gav – I just don't like the Chaos Codex! 😀
    that said, I've never understood people's issue with the Dark Elf one. I know the rules for Manbane didn't work out as he intended (thinking on this now, I'd like 4-5 pages of Designers Notes in each Codex, and these should be considered the final word in RaW disputes…) but overall a strong, characterful army.

    I really must get around to getting that audiobook too – I always liked Raven Guard.

  2. TKE – which edition Dark Elf book are you referring to? Judging by your manbane comment, I'm guessing the latest book. The 6th edition book was seriously underpowered and the reaction was so strong GW had a major revision, not just a FAQ. I think the 7th ed book was quite well done.

  3. Good interview that ,Gav comes across as a very genuine guy, love his description of Archaon, what a great way of looking at it.

    White Dwarf should do honest one to ones like that.

  4. Interesting read with alot of what Gav said being my own thoughts. However, from this interview and his rant on Mechanical Hamster I get the impression he feels that C:CSM was fine from both a balance and fluff point of view.

    Messanger

  5. I think he at least concedes that while *he* thought it was fine for fluff/balance, that the playerbase did not and therefore it did not achieve what he wanted.

  6. The final sentence of the last question shows that he understands players are unhappy. However, his 'rants' over on Mechanical Hamster gave a different impression. Don't blame him for players being unhappy as the mistake lies with all of Games Workshop and the Design Team… he was just the scape goat so to speak.

    Messanger

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