Chaosium is one of the oldest and best recognised names in the world of games. Founded by Greg Stafford in 1975, Chaosium released the groundbreaking RuneQuest in 1978, a high-fantasy RPG set in Stafford’s fictional world of Glorantha. In 1981 Chaosium’s fame was assured with the publication of Call of Cthulhu, a brilliant horror RPG based on the stories of American writer H.P. Lovecraft that has been called “unequivocally the greatest roleplaying game ever written“. After the lean years of the late ’90s and early 2000s, Chaosium announced a new ownership and leadership team at Gen Con 2015. Since then the company has been staging a major comeback, with its sumptuous new 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu receiving rave reviews. A little while ago I caught up with Michael O’Brien, one of Chaosium’s Vice Presidents and long-time Glorantha fan. In Part I of Michael’s interview we talked about the roundabout path that Michael took to find himself Vice President of a company whose games he played and loved as a kid.
Michael O’Brien: I am the Vice President of Chaosium. One of them!
GvP: Yes. What’s your other role at Chaosium? Have you got another title too?
MOB: Ah, that is my title, but I have a number of responsibilities, I guess would be the best way to put it [laughs].
GvP: I’m sure you do.
MOB: So, I work on the creative side of the company with my colleague Jeff Richard, who is also Vice President of the company, and the company’s creative director. The two other principals of the company are Rick Meints, who’s the President, and he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My other colleague in the management team is Neil Robinson, he is the CFO/CTO and he lives in Bellevue, Washington. So we’ve got Jeff in Berlin, me here in Melbourne, Australia, and the other two guys in parts of the United States. We do a lot of our work on Skype, but we do get together a couple of times each year.
GvP: So, you’re a multinational corporation, then?
MOB: I guess you could say that! The other two key people involved in the company are Sandy Petersen, who’s on our board of directors, and of course Greg Stafford, who is the Chairman of the Board and founder of Chaosium.
GvP: Right, so Greg also created RuneQuest and the world of Glorantha?
MOB: Greg is creator of the world of Glorantha, which is fifty years old this year. He also created the King Arthur Pendragon roleplaying game, which is another famous game. He was involved in the creation of RuneQuest – back in 1978 he wanted a roleplaying game to be set in his world of Glorantha, and got another well known games designer called Steve Perrin, and several other people, to help create it. Greg lives in Arcata, which is in Northern California, and Sandy lives in Rockwall, Texas. So, we are spread about the place, but we all worked together at Gen Con earlier this year.
GvP: That’s actually what I was going to kick off with – how did Gen Con go this year?
MOB: Gen Con was great. It is a gigantic convention. We had a booth there, and had a number of panels. We ran nearly 80 sessions of Call of Cthulhu, and some RuneQuest as well.
GvP: Eighty sessions? Over how many days?
MOB: This is over three and half days days. Fortunately we had a lot of volunteer GMs and Keepers to help us with that, which was really cool. But that’s only the start. Rick has a plan – next year he wants to run 500 sessions. And I think we’ll do it. But you know, we really want to say that Call of Cthulhu 7thEdition is now out, it’s back on the map, and people can get out there and play it. Call of Cthulhu is the marquee brand of Chaosium, I guess you could say. It’s been around since 1981. We like to think our other marquee brand is RuneQuest, and we’ve got a new edition of that coming out early next year as well . That’s the new Chaosium edition. It’s come back to Chaosium.
GvP: That’s very exciting.
GvP: These are games that, like you say, have been around for a generation, from the start of RPGs.
GvP: And are so influential as well. Call of Cthulhu still gets regularly called the “best roleplaying game of all time.”
MOB: That’s what Geek & Sundry said a few months ago, which was pretty awesome. And just earlier today I had very exciting news that Call of Cthulhu won best RPG in the inaugural Dragon awards at Dragon Con in Atlanta. So we’re very happy about that too.
GvP: That’s very exciting, well done.
MOB: Call of Cthulhu is a game that’s been around since 1981. It has a very solid and devoted following. I think one of the great things about the game is that it hasn’t changed that much in the whole time since it’s come out. We’re up to its 7th edition, which has sorted out some problematic things and rules fixes that had been in the earlier editions. It’s a much more well-structured rule book to follow. It also looks magnificent – it’s got beautiful full colour art and the production quality is amazing. That really blows people away when they see it. And that’s the bar that we’ve raised everything to. From now on, everything that Chaosium is doing for our marquee products will be full colour. They will have amazing artwork, and wonderful layout. And they also come free with the PDF when you buy the book.
GvP: It really does look magnificent, the new 7th Edition. [I was holding a copy in my hands while saying this]
MOB: Yeah, we’re really happy with how it looks. And I think we’ve raised the bar even higher with the new stuff we’ve got coming out following that. For example, Pulp Cthulhu, which is the pulpy, two-fisted action version of Call of Cthulhu.
GvP: Which we’ve wanted for a long time, I think.
MOB: Yeah, that was announced a very long time ago. [laughs] So, we’re pulling that together. It’s been an interesting ride, the last year. It was at Gen Con last year that Greg announced the four of us had come onboard as part of the new management team of the company. We’ve worked very hard in the last year, and things are slowly coming together.
GvP: You can really feel things are moving forward, and it’s going to grow from here. Now, when I was playing Call of Cthulhu and other RPGs the first time around, when I was a teenager in the ‘80s, TSR and Chaosium were like the “Big 2”. They were sort of like how Marvel and DC are now.
MOB: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that.
GvP: Yeah – but which one’s which, do you think? [both laugh]
MOB: Interesting question!
GvP: I’m not sure if I should say on record, but maybe Chaosium would be Marvel? Anyway, it’s amazing that a boy from Melbourne like yourself is now Vice President of Chaosium. How did that come about?
MOB: Well … so, back in probably 1979 I got my first ever Chaosium product, which was a RuneQuest supplement called “Apple Lane”. I was maybe in the first year of secondary school, or junior high, as Americans would understand it. We were D&D players, but we got hold of thisRuneQuest supplement called “Apple Lane”, and we were trying to figure out what this game was. Because it looked so cool – there were clearly no classes, there were no levels. There were hit locations, which looked amazingly interesting for combat. Everyone could use magic, which was so cool. There were none of the bizarre – and I still think they’re bizarre – constrictions that D&D has that are very artificial. And also, of course, “Apple Lane” had this amazing fantasy world, Glorantha, though there were just glimpses of it really in that publication. And that’s what got me in love with Chaosium products all the way back then. It probably wasn’t even 10 years later that I remember I had my first manuscript rejected by Chaosium [laughs].
GvP: A special moment?
MOB: Yeah, in the nicest possible way! [laughs] So yeah, I’d been very keen to do stuff with Chaosium from a long time ago. In 1992 I had a RuneQuest supplement published, when Avalon Hill was the licensee. There was a very creative flowering of RuneQuest and Glorantha underKen Rolston, who was known as the “Rune Czar” at the time. That first book was called Sun County, I really enjoyed working on that. I’d also been involved in a fanzine called Tales of the Reaching Moon, which was a Glorantha fanzine, for – gosh, a long time – from 1989 until I think the last issue came out in 2002. I was the associate editor of that from issue #3 onwards. The founder and editor of the magazine was David Hall in the UK. He is a seminal figure in the history of RuneQuest and Glorantha, because his fanzine kept the flame of Glorantha fandom alive at a time when there were no official publications (the late 1990s – early 2000s). Chaosium itself – I’m not sure if you’re aware – but it’s had a number of vicissitudes throughout its history, and has nearly gone bankrupt a couple of times. That was 1998, but the most recent problems were a few years ago when Chaosium had two Kickstarters for the new edition of Call of Cthulhu and a supplement called “Horror on the Orient Express“, but very sadly became a victim of its own success. They were very successful Kickstarters, but Chaosium ended up having a lot of troublefulfilling them (Geek and Sundry described this as “kickstarting yourself to death“). That’s when Greg and Sandy came back to take over the management of the company, and brought Rick, Neil, Jeff and I in as well. So we’re also part-owners of Chaosium. We were in another company called Moon Design Publications, and that actually had a license for RuneQuest from Greg Stafford. So that’s how it ended up. I’ve actually had a totally different career, of course, in the intervening time, but now I’m helping run a game company. And I’m very excited about that.
MOB: Oh, absolutely! Fan, and player. And we all are, the four of us – Jeff, Neil, Rick and I. We’re all big, devoted fans and players. And we’re also creators for stuff that Chaosium has done, as well.
GvP: You mentioned that before too, that the fans kept things going in the lean time. It does seem that there was a sort of “Dark Age” for roleplaying games in general in the ‘90s and early 2000s.
MOB: Yeah, when collectible card games came in, and video games too. But definitely they’re back!
GvP: What’s happened, do you think?
MOB: Well, boardgames are really big. Boardgames have never stopped being big in some other places. In Germany, boardgames are just huge.
GvP: It’s just part of popular culture over there, isn’t it?
MOB: Absolutely, yeah. But roleplaying games have definitely come back. Part of it is – I hate to say it – but it’s the global financial crisis. When people’s incomes are a little bit constrained, they can’t afford to spend it on fancy holidays, or boats – but you can buy a boardgame and have a lot of fun. I hate to say it, but bad times are good for game companies [laughs ruefully]
GvP: So you could chart the rise of RPGs again from the global financial crisis of 2008?
MOB: Yeah, maybe you could. I don’t know! It could be an interesting thing to trace. But they’re definitely back now, and it’s a very exciting time to be producing games.
GvP: You’re based here in Melbourne, Australia. Is there a scene here or a community in Australia?
MOB: Yeah. Games stores have reinvented themselves in the last decade, or five or six years. Actually, I’ve lived outside of Australia for the last ten years, I only got back in the last two years. So really I’m only basing that on my visits and the last two years. But it seems games stores have reinvented themselves here as they have overseas. You really can’t just have a games store that has a whole lot of games on the shelves, and people walk in and buy them and walk out. Games stores are reinventing themselves so that people play the games in the stores, they foster things like organised play, and they have competitions. They do value adding, like having drinks and food, and things like that. That’s definitely happening here in Melbourne.
GvP: I think it’s quite a vibrant scene.
MOB: And it’s growing as well, which is really cool. I’ve been to a number of games stores and game cafes here when they’ve been running events. There’s an excellent game cafe the city [Melbourne CBD] which even has a Japanese restaurant attached to it. Actually, it’s more the other way round: the games take place at the back, and excellent Japanese food is brought to your gaming tables.
GvP: Wow, what more could you want?
MOB: That’s the Gamezilla meet-up, and I think that’s now moved from one night a week to two nights a week. There are other ones as well. I know Good Games is doing a lot of stuff in the city and elsewhere, Kay-Jays in Footscray of course, and there’s another games store I was at recently in Fitzroy North for Free RPG Day, running a whole lot of events there.
GvP: I think we just missed each other that day, I was there. That’s Gatekeeper Games.
MOB: Gatekeeper Games, yeah. So we’re doing a lot at Chaosium to foster organised play and help support game stores who sell our product. This year for Free RPG Day we produced something that people were very excited about, which was a previously unpublished, never-seen-before scenario by Sandy Petersen, the guy who created Call of Cthulhu.
GvP: What was that called?
MOB: That was called “The Derelict“. They were snapped up very, very quickly, so we thought we don’t want people to miss out. If you’re in our organised play program, which is called The Cult of Chaos, everybody there gets it for free on PDF. We’ve also put it up on Lulu.com – you know, the print-on-demand website – and you can get a print version for $2.99 US. That made people very happy too.
GvP: I’m sure it did.
MOB: So we’re definitely trying to foster and encourage people to play, and we’re really keen to help stores. Another thing we’ve done recently to help foster bricks-and-mortar stores keep going all over the world is to join the Bits and Mortar program. Are you familiar with that?
GvP: No, I’ve not heard of it.
MOB: So what that is, if you buy something from our website, from chaosium.com, you’ll get the book – we’ll mail it to you – and you’ll also get the PDF for free. So we’re now part of Bits and Mortar where if you buy a game book from certain stores that are part of this program, they will also be able to give you the PDF as part of the transaction. Which is cool.
GvP: And that’s a great way, as you say, of keeping the community real, keeping it rooted in stores and with real people.
MOB: I know a number of stores in Australia that are part of Bits and Mortar, and on the Bits and Mortar website there’s a map of the world where you can see all the different game stores that are a part of it.
GvP: Great! I’ll provide a link to it in the interview here.
You’ll be able to read Part 2 of Michael O’Brien’s interview on Games vs Play very soon. We’d like to thank Chaosium and Michael for permission to use images appearing in this post. To find out more about the latest reviews, stories and other cool things in the world of games, you can like us on Facebook. And remember – if you’re game, we’ll play!