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A Brief History of Chaosium, Inc.

Chaosium, Inc. is one of my proudest accomplishments. Chaosium was one of the original companies for the Hobby Game Industry, and was famous for its innovative and professionally produced product.  I founded it in 1975 and ran it, as president, from then until 1998. 

Here is a collection of reminiscences about my time there.

INDUSTRY AWARDS

  • 1981 Origins Award “In Appreciation”
  • 1985 Games Day Award for Best Manufacturer
 

Before Chaosium: Wyrd

I would never have begun a publishing company if I had not first done this fanzine, Wyrd. Back in early 70’s many fanzines were being made. These were done for love, and contributors typically got a copy or two for their contributions. Among those were a few that published fiction and prided themselves in paying a pittance, instead of just contributor copies. These included Gordon Linzner’s regular and frequent Space & Time, horror-oriented Whispers and Weirdbook, my friend Bill Breiding’s Moonbroth, The Magazine of Fantasy and Terror published by Bill’s mother’s boyfriend, and Wyrd, which some friends and I inherited. The Collective of Semiprozines, as we called ourselves, once collaborated to do a sampler called Toadstool Wine. In it appears sample artwork from my first game. 

They were a valuable outlet for enterprising writers and artists frustrated by the professional markets. Many professional writers of today and recent years had their first stories published in these, including Jessica Salmonson, Darryl Schweitzer, Phyllis Ann Karr, and many others whose careers I’ve not followed.

When Wyrd’s publishers were unable to continue produce the zine after the first issue, a covey of us — Brian Crist, Steve Swenston, Willliam Church, and me — volunteered to continue the job.  All the other guys were old buddies who lived in Santa Rosa, CA. Shortly after taking over the task I too moved to California and met them in person. Brian, Steve and I went camping up in the mountains one week end and bonded well. (William was being the responsible family man and couldn't make it.) I became friends with all of these guys, and all of them contributed to my first game. 

Shortly after I began Chaosium we all gave up Wyrd, which I handed off to another team of publishers. I think they did one more issue. 

How I Made My First Game

I am a gamer, and have been since I was a kid. Of course I played kid-games at first, but I got some other, more usual, war games. One was Conflict. In it cannons, airplanes, ships and an antiaircraft gun moved around the board according to die rolls. I remember, too, an American Civil War game that had ships and armies that moved around the board. One day was given a copy of U-boat, by Avalon Hill. I couldn’t play it—it was too difficult for me in those days. But the die had been cast.

Wethersfield-Sign.jpg

I became a war gamer in 1962. My family moved from Wethersfield, CT to a suburb outside of Chicago, IL. My first summer there I had two friends. One was a juvenile delinquent and the other was a war gamer, so I spent half my time playing war games with Dave Murphy. They were all Avalon Hill games: Tactics II, D-Day, Stalingrad, etc. I was hooked, and Dave and I played them all through high school. I talked to Dave not too long ago, and he is now working as a civilian contractor supplying the U. S. Army. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” he said, “that our hobby affected us both in our careers?” Yes, indeed, and it’d be hard to find more divergent careers. 

Years passed after High School. I played war games through that time. I got married and moved to California in 1975. 

I always wanted to be a writer, and since discovering Glorantha had been writing various fantasy pieces. I regularly sent short stories out to various publications to compile the obligatory pile of rejection slips necessary to be a writer. One day, shortly after I had arrived in California, I was staying at my future mother-in-law’s house I got a particularly rude rejection note that basically said, “All fantasy is alike, don’t send me this trash anymore.”

I was infuriated, because I knew that all fantasy stories are not alike. I went out walking around town just fuming with anger and trying to decide what to do. I was at my in-laws when I read the note, and went stomping around Albany. I climbed up the side of Albany Hill, circling around on the streets and then cutting through peoples' yards and going right up the steep side. While up on top was struck by inspiration. I decided I would create a do-it-yourself fantasy epic, and it would be in the form of a game. I’d design an epic fantasy wherein I supplied the characters and setting, and each playing would be the plot. 

By the time I came down from the hill I was plotting out the game. The fist version wasn’t set in Glorantha, but in a new fantasy world of empire versus barbarians. But it didn't take too long for this to conjoin with Glorantha. I abruptly realized one day that my in-design game map would fit right into a notorious blank space in my setting, and thus was born Dragon Pass, the Orlanthi and the Lunar Empire. 

 

How I Made Chaosium 

The company was formed when I lived in one of Oakland's ghettos, east 14th St., if you know the area — over near the Oakland Coliseum. I lived in a four-room apartment with my wife, two very young children, and then some dear friends (two adults, two kids) from Chicago moved in with us “for a few days, until we find our own place." They stayed for months, and it was all chaos. (Get it? Coliseum of Chaos = Chaosium.)

White Bear & Red Moon had already been accepted by a couple of publishers, but the first company (I forget its name now) went out of business. Then the second, Battle Flag, went out of business, too. Then my local game store owner (Gary Grady) said he'd like to do it, but then decided to get a divorce and so he couldn't start a new game-publishing business and complicate that further. (He did later start a game company, and published those very successful early Sherlock Holmes party games.) The good part was that each time someone had accepted the game they made suggestions that I incorporated. They all improved the game.

After three failed acceptances I was wondering what to do about getting it published. We didn't like living in the dangerous part of town, either.

One day I did a Tarot Card reading and got absolutely explicit results, clear as day. As a result of that, I decided to publish the game myself. I went out and the next day got a job working in surgery at Providence Hospital. My parents took the kids into their house for a year (very sad, for me) so both my wife and I could work, and after a year we moved out of Oakland to Albany, CA.

I saved about every penny and started Chaosium on the $10K I earned that year. I got my friends, with whom I was doing a fanzine called Wyrd at the time, to help out. (Steve Swenston, art; William Church, map. Bill Johnson, who did the editing, was not in on Wyrd. I'd met him while working at the hospital.)

I printed out the game on a mimeograph machine in the basement of my house. Since mimeo is now a forgotten technology, I’ll describe some of the process in detail: In the simplest version, you’d have to type onto a thin plastic stencil, the typewriter punched a letter-shaped hole into the stencil. The stencil was then mounted on the drum of the mimeograph machine, which cleverly squirted ink on the inside of the drum. The ink leaked through drum and then through the holes in the stencil as the drum rolled over a piece of paper, leaving the imprint on the paper. If you wanted another color the entire machine had to be very carefully cleaned. My first rule book had four colors in it, including a few pages with all four on one page! 

My machine was an automatic mimeo, so I didn’t have to hand crank out each page. Nonetheless, I hovered over it, carefully adjusting the ink for each and every page. The page colors of the rule booklet were color coded to match the unit counters. (I did this again in Nomad Gods, but didn’t manage to maintain it afterwards.) After the pages were all done, my friends and I laid them out on a table and walked around and around, plucking the pages and collating them into a single copy of the rule book. Afterwards I took the cover, which had been professionally printed, folded it to have a spine on the book, and I stapled the whole thing together. Thus, while a machine did the printing, and the cover was offset, the entire run of rule books was hand-done. 

The unit counters were printed professionally and die cut, and the map printed as well. And then once again we walked around and around the table, carefully taking one set of each of the components and putting them into the manila envelope that served as the container for the game. 

I remember at the end looking at the piles of the finished game, of which there were about 800 copies, with a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. There it is, my game! 

Then a new thought: “What do I do with them?” It’s true: I hadn’t given a thought about selling them. 

I was fortunate to be invited, on the basis of my fanzine publication, to be a guest at a science fiction convention being held in Los Angeles. I took come copies of the game along, wrapped in hope, and was delighted to find a dealer there who was selling copies of the game Lensman. I asked if he would be interested in selling any of mine, and he accepted a copy with the wary admonition that he would let me know the next day. This was Tony Pierro. The next day (to my relief) he was quite enthusiastic, ordered two dozen. 

“What are your sales terms?" he asked me.

"What are sales terms?" I asked back. What a pathetic business man I was! To Tony’s credit, he paid me the standard rate and gave me a list of other distributors. “Send them all a sample and your term sheet,” he said. I did, orders came in from all of them, and I was in business.

 

How Chaosium Grew

I never put out a job search for employees. Whenever I needed someone, there was someone right there that I could hire. So my first employee was Tadashi Ehara, who did business; then Lynn Willis, who I initially hired to layout his own board game (Lords of the Middle Sea), then signed him on permanently; later Charlie Krank, Steve Perrin, Sandy Petersen, etc.

Three for California: Tadashi Ahara (editor, Different Worlds), me, and Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu).  


Three for California: Tadashi Ahara (editor, Different Worlds), me, and Sandy Petersen (Call of Cthulhu).
 

Chaosium and Avalon Hill or “The Great Fiasco"

The story of Chaosium and Avalon Hill is an epic of what a small company should not do. 

Now, I’d had a lifelong goal to have Avalon Hill produce a board game done by me. I had bought U-Boat, an AH game, in 1959 or so (I still have the game.) It was the first “realistic” war game I’d ever seen, though I’d played Conflict avidly before that (unrealistic, because your unit movement depends on dice rolls.) 

In 1962 I moved to Illinois from Connecticut, just before my freshman year of High School. I had two friends: one was a war gamer, and the other was a juvenile delinquent, so I spent half my time playing war games. It was Dave Murphy who introduced me to them. They were all Avalon Hill, of course: Tactics II, D-Day, etc. So ever since then I’d always dreamed of Avalon Hill publishing one of my games.

When Chaosium was successful with RuneQuest we eventually decided to stop producing board games. They took twice as long to produce, cost twice as much to manufacture, and sold half as much. So Tadashi and I went to Avalon Hill to see if we could sell them our board games. We met Eric Dott, who was a pretty unlikable old guy. Cantankerous, foul mouthed, crude and one of the leading slum lords of Baltimore. The game business seemed to be an appendage to his printing business, which seemed to be more of a front for Eric than a real day job. The interview went well enough, and Eric agreed to purchase Dragon Pass (the new title for WB&RM) and Elric which they did eventually produce. So my dream came true.

After closing that deal, Eric told me that what he really wanted was to publish RuneQuest. Now RuneQuest was one of our real moneymakers, but we’d reached a business plateau by that time. It was clear we needed to have a full-time marketing guy to expand our market and keep up with the rest of the market, which was at that time getting larger and increasingly professional. But no one had miraculously appeared to be hired.

Well, I told Avalon Hill I’d sell them the game, which was what they wanted, for a million dollars. And I would have, too—but Eric balked. So instead they discussed a license deal.

Back home we discussed the options, and decided that Avalon Hill might be just the right ticket to do the manufacturing and marketing for us. They were still one of the largest game manufacturers in the industry. Chaosium, meanwhile, would do the acquisitions, writing, design and layout — all our strong suits. Looked good!

We worked out a contract where they promised to spend such and such in advertising, etc etc. Looked great!

Of course, they wanted a new edition. We seized the chance to do a new edition and threw in every house rule we had, plus some more. The result was RQ3. One thing that I did insist on was keeping a close grip on the Gloranthan content. We didn’t license that to them. Thus the core game came out and was set in Fantasy Europe, a setting we planned to develop at length.

When we got the color proofs back for the first release of the game I hit the ceiling. In direct violation of the contract they’d taken the designer’s names off the box! I protested to Eric, who simply said, “We don’t do that at Avalon Hill. Want to kill the deal right now?” I should have said yes, but I chickened out. I backed down. Big mistake. From “dream come true" to “nightmare."

And from then on things just got worse and worse. They ignored our expertise and kept making demands that we tried to meet, and it never clicked. We made a set of character sheets, just to have a quick product. They demanded that they had to be in a box, and then they complained that it cost too much to make and sell. They demanded product come quickly, even if it was to be reprints, and then complained that they were reprints.

At one point Eric revealed he was going to have three RPGs available through Avalon Hill, and RuneQuest would be “the Cadillac” of the line. He sent me a manuscript of Powers & Perils and asked for an honest assessment. I told him it was awful, neither original nor well written. He accused me of professional jealousy. Go find a copy yourself and make your own mind up about which of us was right.

Relations got worse and worse. They weren’t spending the promised money on promotion, etc. Finally I told them Chaosium was going to withdraw from the deal. I sent a letter stating the contract violations they had committed, and we stopped working with them. They tried to do a new edition of RuneQuest, which never got into print for various reasons, but I had already forbidden them to use any Gloranthan content in their game.

It ended up with bad feelings all around. It was a business disaster for Chaosium, because we ended up pouring a lot of our energy into it and not getting as much out of it as we would have if we’d just done our own product. Thank the gods that Call of Cthulhu was a success. It kept us in business.


To read more about Chaosium's colorful history read this article by Shannon Appelcline. Shannon has been a friend of mine ever since he came to work for Chaosium. He was a very valuable employee for those many years in editorial, layout, design and general opinion and advice; is an expert on games of all sorts, and author of a series of insightful articles about the history of our industry. 

This history below is a reprint of his chapter concerning Chaosium, which originally appeared on RPG.net and is reprinted here with his kind permission. Only a few minor editorial corrections have been made to the original text.