Feb 2 2010

Failure to launch 2.0

After that FRUP sat in an unvisited directory on my hard-drive for most of the next ten years, until I started to have thoughts about putting Magnum Opus Press—my current publishing business—together. I went back to the files and was surprised to find that they were still pretty funny.

They were dated, sure. One and a half editions of D&D had come and gone in the meanwhile, TSR had been swallowed by Wizards of the Coast, which had been swallowed in turn by Hasbro. The jokes, which had been very focused on AD&D2 and TSR, would need to be rewritten. In fact there was a huge section about elves that was entirely based about the upper management of TSR, which in retrospect wasn’t very funny at the time but ten years later was dead and stinking on the page.

But there was something there, the nucleus of a game that could be funny to read, and funny to play as well. Something worth saving. It’d need a lot of updating and polish, revisions to bring it into the late 2000s, jokes about indie gaming and Twilight. A fair amount of work. Plus, of course, I still had no mechanics.

So I set about assembling a superteam of RPG creatives. On keyboards Rebecca Borgstrom, creator of Nobilis. On lead vocals Gareth Hanrahan, star creative on Mongoose’s Paranoia and Traveller lines. And on lead guitar Jonny Nexus, author of the Ennie Award-nominated novel Game Night. Behind the mixing desk and contributing the occasional drum riff, bass lick and amen break, yours truly.

And for some reason it never got off the ground. Rebecca put together a set of mechanics of astonishing, crystalline beauty and intricacy, so intricate that I couldn’t get my head around what they were trying to model, let alone how to use them to do it. I still contend that she is the Einstein of our craft, but back in the 1920s when he was writing pretty much nobody understood Einstein either, and they certainly didn’t know how to put his ideas into practice. All we could do was stand back, going, “E=MC2d10, you say? Right… right….”

Perhaps I’m just an idiot.

Gareth and Jonny divided up the existing texts and worked out what still needed to be written—most of the tricky bits, pretty much—and then the project sat on the runway, lacking the oomph to get it airborne. I’ve wondered if perhaps we lacked the necessary vitriol in our hearts to get us up to launch speed. After all, it’s difficult to hate D&D these days. It just is. Back in the 90s AD&D2 was a dreadful RPG, clunky, over-encumbered with unnecessary rules bolted onto a 1970s structure, published by a company that defiantly refused to give new players an easy entry-point to the role-playing hobby while it preferred to stick its oars into doomed ventures and further attempts to milk the Buck Rogers licence into the Dille family coffers. By 2006 D&D was just a game, published by just a company.

Then in 2008 D&D4e was released. And I leafed through the books, written by friends and colleagues, and I tried very hard to like it. But there at the back of my spine I could feel something dark, trickling upwards from where it had been hiding for ten years. Hello vitriol, my old friend. Hello, hello.

Which brings us to the present day.

Jan 26 2010

The end of Bugtown

A couple of years later, in the Hogshead office, I found myself overwhelmed and brought to sudden tears by an incredibly vivid, agonising memory of the whole Bugtown RPG fiasco. It took me five minutes to delete all material relating to the game from the company’s hard-drives and back-ups, and destroy all paper records of the game. And there went FRUP’s mechanics.

Jan 26 2010


This entry is going to piss some people off. But it’s true, every word.

I’d known Erick Wujcik since the late 80s. He’d seen my games zine ‘Sound & Fury’, I’d stayed with him and his girlfriend in Detroit in 1989, and at Gen Con that year he’d introduced me to Kevin Siembieda of Palladium Books, which led to my first book for them, Mutants in Avalon.

Erick was at the height of his powers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, his RPG for Palladium, had turned into a runaway bestseller and he was prepping something extraordinary for publication: Amber, the first diceless RPG, based on the Roger Zelazny books. Originally tabled to come out through R. Talsorian Games, it ended up with Erick bringing it out himself in 1991, through his own imprint Phage Press.

Amber Diceless got great reviews and great sales—still possible for an RPG in the early 90s—and he decided to expand Phage Press by commissioning and publishing other innovative RPGs, as well as supplements for Amber.

Since 1989 I’d had a verbal contract with Matt Howarth to create (and find a publisher for) an RPG based on his comics Those Annoying Post Bros and Savage Henry, both set in the bizarre, berserk world of Bugtown. The system I’d designed for this game went beyond Amber’s innovations: it wasn’t just diceless, it was numberless, entirely text-based. The Bugtown RPG had got the best playtest reports of any game I’ve ever designed—people were ecstatic about it, blown away by the world and how the mechanics let you tell stories in it. Erick and I had talked about the game and its development, how it was going, and it seemed like a natural fit for Phage. So in early 1992, with Howarth’s agreement, I agreed to write the Bugtown RPG for Phage under the editorship of Erick Wujick.

I didn’t sign on with Phage. There was no written deal. Call me naïve. I was hyped that a project I’d been developing for three years had found a publisher, and that I was going to be mentored by the one of the most innovative designers in the industry.

I then spent the next two years writing and rewriting the outline of Bugtown. Not the game itself. Erick wasn’t happy with the rules. He wasn’t happy with the structure. He wasn’t happy with, well, anything. None of it was good enough. It all needed to be better.

As an editor and publisher Erick was two things: he was a perfectionist and a control freak. Neither of those is a good quality in an overseer, but together they made an impossible combination. Erick wanted a say in every element of the game’s design, he wanted everything to be as good as it possibly could be but at the same time he never told me how something should be changed or improved—only that it needed to be. I’m not sure he knew himself. And then the revision wouldn’t be right either. And the revision to that wouldn’t be right.

In two years of work, I didn’t write a single word of the actual for-release manuscript of Bugtown. I wrote and rewrote and rewrote playtest documents and rules, and contents-outlines for the book, and Erick would send them back and tell me it wasn’t right—nothing was ever right. But I’d never developed an RPG for publication before and I assumed since I was working with Erick Wujick that this was how it was done, and this was how long it took. And so, at exactly the point in my professional career when I should have been pounding out games and supplements to establish my reputation and make a living, I spent two years working on Bugtown, producing no published game material at all. And by the end of 1993 it was becoming obvious that the only Bugtown manuscript Erick Wujick could ever be happy with was one he’d written himself.

(Subsequently, once this whole mess blew over, I found I wasn’t alone. Erick had commissioned a number of Amber supplements, five or six, some from fans who had been playtesting the game for years, some from accomplished industry writers. He wasn’t happy with any of them either. They were sent back for rewrite after rewrite, until the writers gave up out of exasperation or despair. None of the books was ever released.)

Then in early 1994, Jonathan Tweet approached me. I knew Jonathan through our mutual connection to Atlas Games. Now he was the newly crowned Head of RPGs at Wizards of the Coast, Magic the Gathering was less than a year old, and the company was swimming in unexpected money. Jonathan wanted new RPGs for WotC. Specifically he wanted Bugtown, and he was offering a written contract, an advance, a payment plan and a release date. I talked to Howarth and Howarth was up for it. So we told Erick that we’d been made an offer we couldn’t refuse and regretfully Bugtown was no longer a Phage project—a step made easier by the lack of anything resembling a contract at that end—and we made the jump to Wizards.

And then the Wizards deal fell apart because Howarth refused to accept the percentage we were offered for royalties on t-shirt sales.

I wish I could tell you that you’d read that wrong, that your unbelieving eyes could go over that sentence again and it would change into something that made some kind of rational sense. But no. The deal fell apart over t-shirt royalties.

So by late 1994 I found myself with five years of development on a game that now had no publisher, and a suspicion that perhaps my business partner wasn’t very businesslike. But in the meanwhile I and Andrew Rilstone had created a quasi-academic journal of games design and criticism, Interactive Fantasy, and that seemed to be doing well, and I’d heard that Games Workshop was looking for a licensee for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and I decided to set up Hogshead Publishing.

It was the end of 1994. The plan was: Warhammer FRP would be our door-opener and cash-cow. Bugtown would be our major prestige release in summer 1996. And in the meanwhile we’d bang out FRUP, using a cut-down version of the Bugtown mechanics, and kick it into print in time for Gen Con 1995. Minimal advertising, no hype, see if people liked it, let it sink or swim on its merits. And so we went into business.

I was young, naïve, I’d never run a company before—I’d spent the last two years developing an RPG—and I made a couple of bad decisions. In particular I signed an exclusive distribution deal for the whole of Europe with a company that, so far as I can tell, had no intention of honouring any part of the (written, lawyer-inspected) contract. They said they could sell 4000 Warhammer FRP rulebooks and 2000 copies of every supplement, and would pay us in two weeks, and I believed them. So we extended our overdraft to print the additional copies we needed to fill their order, and shipped them, and waited for the cheque to arrive. And it didn’t.

The big mistake I made, somewhere around the beginning of the third month of waiting for this payment, was telling the distributor that we had run out of money. I’m pretty sure they heard this as “they can’t afford to take us to court” and “soon we can buy their bankrupt stock”. Hogshead did finally get payment from them, but not before I’d had to lay off all the company’s staff, including myself. The ‘running out of money’ line hadn’t been an exaggeration.

Hogshead’s release schedule was in tatters. I couldn’t afford to commission new books, I could barely afford to pay the printer, I was doing three people’s jobs on my own, and working on external projects to earn a living—I had no time to work on anything new. Warhammer FRP releases had to be the priority, to get the business solvent again. Over the next months I was able to pay off the overdraft and begin to think about an actual future for the company… maybe even get back to work on Bugtown or FRUP.

And then I got a phonecall from Matt Howarth. I don’t have a record of the exact date, but I’m pretty sure it was less than a year since I’d started Hogshead. Matt, he told me, had been talking to Erick. Erick, the man who had kept Bugtown in outline for two years, had expressed dismay that in the less-than-a-year since launching my company, I hadn’t published the RPG yet. Erick had assured Matt that if Matt gave the Bugtown game rights to Erick, Erick would publish the Bugtown game right-smart. So Matt was taking the Bugtown game rights back to Phage Press. I was not given a chance to make a counter-offer. The deal had been done.

And there went six years of hellish development, of my career as a games designer, of a project I had polished until it shone like a junior supernova, and I had literally nothing left to show for it and nothing I could do with it.

I think it was about four in the afternoon. I think I went to bed, and I think I stayed there for a few days. And when I got up, my sense of humour and my desire to develop new RPGs had gone missing.

Phage Press ran from 1991 until 2008: seventeen years. In that time it published two books: the Amber Diceless RPG (1991), and Shadow Knight, a supplement for it (1993), both written by Erick Wujcik. No books were released after 1993. Nothing further was ever heard of the Bugtown RPG. After that phone call in 1995, I had no further contact with Matt Howarth or Erick Wujcik.

Do I think that Erick did it deliberately? Do I think he set out to screw me, as he perceived himself to have been screwed, by promising  Howarth that he was going to write the Bugtown RPG himself, when he had no intention of doing any such thing? Yes, I do.

Erick is dead now. Which at least means he’s stopped pestering me to friend him on Facebook.

Jan 22 2010

A bit of background

If you’re reading this without having the faintest idea what FRUP is/was, there’s an old introduction to the game over in the Pages column to the right. It’ll give you the flavour of the thing.

Beyond that, the potted version is: FRUP is/was a fantasy RPG, a parody of other fantasy RPGs, that was supposed to be published by my company Hogshead Publishing in 1995. For various reasons that never happened, and I will be going into those reasons in great and tedious length in future posts.

But before the project crashed and burned I completed 120,000 words of text and commissioned over £4000 of artwork from the likes of future-industry-great Ralph Horsley, and I still own all the rights to it, and it’s a shame to leave it mouldering on a hard-drive where nobody but me will ever see it. So… something might happen with that material. Might be here. You never know.

There is also a Facebook group because Facebook handles images and discussions rather better than WordPress.

Jan 22 2010

A brief word on taxonomy

Before we go any further, I should make things clear. ‘FRUP’ is the name of the RPG we’re talking about, the one that was never published. ‘Frup’ is the name of the world in which the game is set, and is also is the name of the game described in the three giant rulebooks that fell from the sky two thousand years ago. When I talk about FRUP, I’m talking about the game and the project to get it written and published. When I talk about Frup, I’m describing the contents of the game.

Hope that’s clear.

Jan 22 2010

The very start

The idea of FRUP came to me in about 1991. I’d already been semi-professionally involved in the games industry since the mid-80s, and had been trying to find a publisher for the Bugtown RPG since 1989—more on that later—but at this point I didn’t have any ideas about setting up a games company.

I don’t know where the idea for FRUP came from. I do know where the name came from: it was Graham Staplehurst, gamebook and RPG supplement author, who was an occasional at Paul Mason’s gaming gatherings in Putney. He was the first person I ever heard use ‘frp’—the acronym for fantasy roleplay—as a verb, and he pronounced it ‘frup’. As in: ‘are you frupping this weekend?’

It’s possible I misheard him.

After that, FRUP went on the back-burner. I didn’t really know what to do with it, other than leave it to ferment in the back of my mind, becoming richer and darker and sillier. I did pitch it to Steve Jackson (of Steve Jackson Games) at a convention in 1992 and he laughed so hard that beer came out of his nose, but it was clear that a book called GURPS FRUP was never going to go far, and SJG wasn’t at a place where doing it as a standalone RPG would have been a viable proposition.

And then in 1992 Erick Wujcik entered my professional life.

Jan 22 2010

What is FRUP?

FRUP was my idea.