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“It was the beginning of a gaming revolution”: Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone talks fantasy, bringing D&D to the UK and the birth of Warhammer

The way is full of peril.

What do Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons and Fighting Fantasy have in common? As well as being drawn from the wild and deadly reaches of the fantasy genre, the seminal miniature game, tabletop RPG and gamebook series have all seen the involvement of Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone at some point.

In 1975, tired of their “boring jobs” and eager to turn their hobby-gaming passion into a business, Livingstone and old school friends Steve Jackson and John Peake co-founded Games Workshop in a Shepherd’s Bush flat. The aim was to build a community around the trio’s fanzine, Owl & Weasel, which catered to tabletop gamers.

"It was always a dream to be able to turn my hobby into a career," says Livingstone. "It happened sooner than expected.”

At the heart of the fledgling company was fantasy. Livingstone cites everything from the high-fantasy travails of Tolkien, Ursula K Le Guin and Arthurian mythology to the pulpy, ultra-violent worlds of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E Howard and cosmic horror writer HP Lovecraft, plus the bizarre sci-fi landscapes of Fritz Leiber, as inspiration.

“They all had a subconscious influence on us,” he says, “and therefore the direction we took with Workshop."

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The cover of Owl & Weasel, issue number one, from February 1975.

“Fantasy is a natural genre for tabletop games because you get to play in worlds of make-believe which are inhabited by evil villains, warlocks, undead, vampires, dragons and other flesh-ripping monsters. Anything can happen in these chaos game worlds.”

In the mid-1970s, the Games Workshop founders discovered a new game gaining traction in the US. The title was called Dungeons & Dragons, and saw players interact in a made-up fantasy world using dice rolls and improvised storytelling: the first mass-market tabletop roleplaying game.

Dungeons & Dragons fascinated and delighted Livingstone and company, who played it avidly right from the off.

“D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game which stimulates the imagination like none other,” says Livingstone. “Creating an alter-ego and taking on the role of a hero, wizard, cleric or thief exploring monster-filled dungeons certainly appealed to me. It was like theatre on the fly - a dramatic high-stakes simulation in an environment of danger with the promise of vast hordes of treasure.”

Livingstone recalls his first Dungeons & Dragons character, Anvar the Barbarian, who met an untimely demise at the hands of an evil necromancer after years of epic adventures. ”I remember him fondly to this day,” he says. “Given the game’s originality and social impact, it certainly merits its classic status; it’s a genuine milestone in gaming history.”

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Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone during the early days of Games Workshop.

Games Workshop went on to secure the exclusive rights to distribute Dungeons & Dragons in the UK and Europe for three years on the back of a single order for six copies.

In the 1970s, the British tabletop scene consisted of hardcore wargame simulations with miniatures and hex grids at one end of the spectrum and mass-market family board games at the other. But even hobbyist gamers - the same players that went on to enthusiastically playtest the tabletop RPG - weren’t ready for Dungeons & Dragons’ arrival and the advent of tabletop roleplaying in 1974.

“It was the beginning of a gaming revolution,” Livingstone says. “But it didn’t happen overnight. John left Games Workshop after a year, and Steve and I had to live in a van for three months as we couldn’t afford the rent for both an office and somewhere to live. But we were living the dream and our fledgling business slowly grew.”

Fantasy is a natural genre for tabletop games because you get to play in worlds of make-believe which are inhabited by evil villains, warlocks, undead, vampires, dragons and other flesh-ripping monsters. Anything can happen in these chaos game worlds.

A tiny startup whose only form of marketing was its fanzine Owl & Weasel - the predecessor to long-running Warhammer magazine White Dwarf- Games Workshop started out importing small quantities of D&D, which were bought solely by hobby gamers.

It took a while for the media to become interested in the tabletop RPG, Livingstone recalls, and the game was often viewed with bewilderment or suspicion - or a heady mixture of both. In a world populated predominantly by family board games including Monopoly and traditional classics such as backgammon, a richly atmospheric game of high imagination and grim battle like Dungeons & Dragons fell far outside the norm.

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The first edition Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual cover from 1977.

“Hobby gamers were used to moving large army units around a board or table,” Livingstone explains. “Whereas D&D players were in control of a single piece, their alter ego.”

The one-to-one personalisation of play via a player-made character caught on, and the game’s monster-infested dungeons only added to the appeal. Meanwhile, Games Workshop explored other avenues.

“We started publishing White Dwarf magazine and also Citadel Miniatures in partnership with Bryan Ansell,” Livingstone says. “We decided we also needed a flagship store for roleplaying and opened our first Games Workshop retail shop in West London in 1978.”

By then, tabletop roleplaying games were becoming more and more popular. Thousands of players would flock to Games Workshop’s annual Games Day conventions; as one of the few places fans could gather together to play tabletop games in the UK the events were an instrumental part of solidifying the early British fantasy tabletop scene.

After three years, Games Workshop's time as a Dungeons & Dragons distributor came to an end.

Hobby gamers were used to moving large army units around a board or table. Whereas D&D players were in control of a single piece, their alter ego.

“We secured a three-year exclusive European distribution agreement for D&D in 1975,” Livingstone says. “When that agreement came to an end in 1978, we tried to negotiate a renewal of the licence. We’d done a good job and were printing copies of D&D under licence for European distribution. However, we couldn’t agree terms with [Dungeons & Dragons publisher] TSR.”

Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax even hopped on a plane to London to propose a merger between Games Workshop and D&D publisher TSR in order to keep the fruitful partnership going.

“But being young, independent- minded entrepreneurs, Steve and I were not keen on the merger idea and declined his offer,” Livingstone says. “This meant, of course, that we lost the exclusive distributorship of D&D and urgently needed a replacement product, one which was owned by Workshop.”

The company subsequently published several board games and RPGs under licence, including its own prints of popular fantasy tabletop RPG RuneQuest and seminal horror RPG Call of Cthulhu.

In 1982, Livingstone and Jackson created their own staple of British fantasy tabletop gaming: Fighting Fantasy. The series of gamebooks debuted with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, infamous to this day for its gruelling labyrinth. The authors drew from the same fantasy influences that had shaped Games Workshop, plus a big dash of Dungeons & Dragons and their own lore and legends which formed as the series progressed.

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Part of the orginal fighting Fantasy: Island of the Lizard King 1984 book cover.

“I enjoy creating dangerous places and populating them with strange or fearsome characters - Port Blacksand in City of Thieves, for example,” says Livingstone. “I don’t think my approach has changed much over the years other than to add more characterisation and detail to the people and places I create.”

Readers created a character using a six-sided die, then picked from a series of decisions, which could range from which direction to head to how to deal with orcs and lizard-people. Each choice was part of an overarching narrative that ran through the book; many of the branching story paths led to an untimely, sometimes hilarious and always horrible end.

It was always a dream to be able to turn my hobby into a career. It happened sooner than expected.

Unlike the similar Choose Your Own Adventure stories of the time, which debuted several years earlier in the US but lacked the dice-rolling gameplay, Fighting Fantasy veered toward violent battles and strange new worlds - luring legions of children and adults alike to their doom.

Fighting Fantasy was a success, shifting over 17 million copies worldwide and being translated into 28 languages. Like Dungeons & Dragons and Warhammer, Fighting Fantasy still continues today, with the most recent entry, Assassins of Allansia, releasing in shops last year. The series has since made the transition to video games, with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain debuting on the Nintendo Switch in 2018.

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The cover of 2017 Fighting Fantasy adventure, Port of Peril.

“At one time people predicted that video games were going to lead to the extinction of tabletop games,” adds Livingstone. “That wasn’t me saying that, by the way! For me, it was never going to be a case of either/or.”

But it wasn’t until Ansell - then managing director of Citadel Miniatures - proposed a miniatures game called Warhammer that the true transformation of Games Workshop began.

“[Designer] Rick Priestley began writing his epic fantasy battle game which came to market in 1983,” says Livingstone. “It was a very big moment in Games Workshop history.”

The sprawling tabletop wargame and its sci-fi themed counterpart released in 1987, Warhammer 40,000, went on to become the biggest miniature wargames in the world, as well as spawning a raft of spin-off tabletop fantasy RPGs, books, comics, video games and more.

I enjoy creating dangerous places and populating them with strange or fearsome characters.

Decades on, the games with which Livingstone was involved continue to be among the most popular and influential titles on the tabletop, and have shaped a new generation of experiences and fantasy worlds.

Livingstone himself has plenty of fantasy-based plans for the future, both for the tabletop and video games. He reveals he’s currently collaborating with Wildlands, Brass and Age of Steam tabletop designer Martin Wallace on two Fighting Fantasy board games, as well as designing a new board game himself. He’s also in the process of co-writing a memoir of Games Workshop’s origins titled Dice Men, and has been playing around with ideas for another Fighting Fantasy gamebook to commemorate the series’ 40th anniversary in 2020.

“It was the beginning of a journey, and I never looked back,” he says. “It has been a privilege to work in the games industry for 45 years. Work and play has been the same for me and I’m never going to retire.”

Learn how to play Warhammer 40,000 - and what to buy first - with our beginner's guide.


Sara Elsam avatar

Sara Elsam

Contributor

Sara has been writing since 2017, contributing news, features and more to outlets including Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Variety, The Guardian, BBC and Tabletop Gaming magazine. An expert in Dungeons & Dragons, they’re also a fan of all things horror and psychedelia both on and off the table. They are happiest rolling big dice, raising mobs and rocking out with their Bard-Lock.

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