Exhibit / July 25, 2018
When it was first published in 1982 by Puffin Books, the children’s imprint of Penguin Books, copies of adventure gamebook The Warlock of Firetop Mountain came with a bookmark announcing “The Great Warlock of Firetop Mountain Competition.” The book’s authors were Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, the co-founders of Games Workshop, the British miniature wargaming company that got its start manufacturing handcrafted wooden boards for traditional games like backgammon and Nine Men’s Morris in the mid-1970s. After encountering TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons, Jackson and Livingstone arranged to become the game’s distributor for the UK, later opening a shop, publishing monthly magazine White Dwarf, and launching gaming miniature company Citadel Miniatures.
With its engaging mish-mash of legend, ersatz classical culture, genre fiction, and RPG tropes, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was such a huge success in the the UK that it was reprinted multiple times in its first year of release. It introduced many of the young inhabitants of 1982 Britain—a place where children were still generally obliged to spend as much time as possible in the fresh air—to the predominantly indoor pursuit of role playing games, as yet a less widespread phenomenon than in the United States. It also established the concept of “the dungeon,” that rambling collection of events and scenes, in the popular imagination of a generation.
Entrants into the Great Warlock of Firetop Mountain Competition were asked to draw a map of the labyrinth featured in the book, with the winner receiving “The largest fantasy figure ever produced”—Citadel Miniatures’ “2ft long” Imperial Dragon, which would come with its own certificate of authenticity. Runners up would receive one of 100 copies of an unspecified Games Workshop fantasy game. Around the United Kingdom, an army of fantasy-minded children immediately set to work mapping the tunnels and caverns inside Firetop Mountain and—as the instructions emphasized that entries would also be judged on “presentation and decoration”—staining with tea, singing page edges, and sealing with wax their creations. When the winners were announced, the second place prize was revealed to be Games Workshop’s beautifully presented 1980 board game Warlock: The Game of Duelling Wizards, which would leave at least one of the 100 runners-up—me—bewildered for weeks as I attempted to understand the confounding rules governing this Jack Vance-like duel between mages.
Released the year after Margaret Thatcher’s election victory—itself in part the result of a retreat into a different kind of fantasy world, in this case a dungeon of jingoistic Little-Englandry—Warlock was written by Bob Conner of Nottingham company Tabletop Games. It featuring arrestingly lurid cover art by Terry Oakes (which presumably provided the name for Games Workshop’s Warlock Purple enamel paint color) and a testimonial from “Games Personality of the Year 1979” Charles Vasey. As evocative as they were incomprehensible, the images featured on the game’s Spell Cards were the work of Russ Nicholson, the British illustrator who was responsible for the art in The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and who had also contributed to TSR’s 1981 Fiend Folio. In practice, Warlock‘s gameplay felt closer to mathematics homework than sorcery. Other age-compatible fantasy devotees within my cycling radius being so thin on the ground as to be non-existent, I attempted to play Warlock against myself, but my short memory and disorganized approach meant that it was destined to remain an artifact for proud veneration rather than an actual game.
Whether, as seems likely, Warlock was simply an opportunity for Games Workshop to dress up a clear-out of remaindered stock as an act of munificence it is impossible to know. What is certain is that the boom in interest that the increasingly corporate company subsequently enjoyed, particularly after the success of its Warhammer series, paralleled a gradual marginalization of the hobbyist approach to wargames and RPGs that had more in common with the ramshackle traditions of British small press publishing. Games began to feel less like an idiosyncratic and vaguely subversive expression of the counterculture, however silly, and more like the slick product of the established toy and games manufacturers.
Ironically, it was precisely the stifling, brand-heavy hegemony Games Workshop exercised over British games over the following years that alienated many of the enthusiasts that the company’s D&D imports and The Warlock of Firetop Mountain had first brought into the fold.