This article is part of a semi-monthly column on the history of roleplaying, one game company at a time. The intent is to step back and forth between larger roleplaying companies and smaller, related ones. In a previous column I covered Chaosium. This related article discusses Green Knight Publishing, one of the three companies which fractured off from Chaosium in the late 1990s.
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #5 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 90s.
In 1998 Pendragon fan and Chaosium friend Peter Corless ended up with the rights to Chaosium’s Pendragon RPG and the Pendragon Fiction line as the result of a loan he had made to Chaosium that was defaulted upon. Flush with dot-com money from his regular job at Cisco, Corless set out to create a company that would reinvigorate the Pendragon RPG line and bring new attention to the stories of King Arthur. From 1998 to 2002 Green Knight would publish almost 20 books on the topic, but turmoil in the computer and gaming industries alike would eventually bring it down.
The Roleplaying Line: 1999-2001
The King Arthur Pendragon roleplaying line had been the heart of Chaosium’s Pendragon production, but it also faced Green Knight with a problem. Chaosium had given the line up precisely because it wasn’t popular–or at least not popular enough to offer good sales in a market that continued to be battered by CCGs. This was coupled with (and perhaps the result of) Pendragon’s once-a-year release schedule from 1993 onward, which was not nearly enough to sustain a line.
In order to get the Pendragon RPG line back on target, Green Knight needed to make a notable new impact on the RPG scene
Unfortunately, they never did.
There were no Pendragon products published in 1998, but by1999 Corless has Green Knight fully running and he was able to publish three supplements all originally intended for publication by Chaosium. First up were a pair of adventure books I’d written and after that was an extensive background book on the Saxons by Roderick Robertson.
The next year Green Knight released their only truly notable Pendragon publication, King Arthur Pendragon: Book of Knights (2000), which was a 48-page book that provided a simple introduction to the world of Arthurian roleplaying. It featured the best layout of the Green Knight books, tight rules, and a great introduction to the setting. It was given away and sold in large quantities. It could have helped to relaunch the line if it had been followed up with exciting new expansions to the line.
Unfortunately Green Knight would only print two other RPG books, Tales of Mystic Tournaments (2000) and Tales of the Spectre Kings (2001), both adventure books that reprinted scenarios from older sources.
Other than the Book of Knights, the Green Knight Pendragon books could just as easily have been published by Chaosium, except that layout and editing were each a bit weaker. There was nothing to distinguish them, and thus nothing to help recreate the line.
Ironically, Green Knight’s lists of upcoming books were full of exciting-sounding game books that could easily have brought new attention to Pendragon, including: the long-promised The Grail Quest; the magical The Realm of Faerie; the long-awaited conclusion to the Pendragon campaign, Le Morte d’Arthur; a nice crunchy Arthurian Bestiary; a line of location sourcebooks starting with Camelot and Avalon; and a new “Realms of Valor” series of games in different setting using the Pendragon system. But they never saw print.
The ultimate failure of Pendragon’s line can probably be attributed to numerous factors, many of which can offer warnings to other companies.
First were financial problems that were somewhat outside of Green Knight’s control and which ultimately led to the downfall of the company. These involved funding issues and the failure of two different fulfillment houses, as we’ll discuss further when talking about the company’s final crash.
Second, the Pendragon RPG never had a strong line editor. A few different editors held the position at various times, until financial problems left Corless as the sole RPG wrangler. None of the line editors had the experience necessary to bring books through to publication, and thus products continually slipped, and the exact books which could have saved the line never were completed.
Third, Green Knight’s Pendragon RPG had already started at a disadvantage because of the state of the line when Green Knight received it. This was made worse by the d20 boom beginning in 2000 and 2001. Green Knight resisted the urge to produce a d20 Pendragon (probably to the franchise’s ultimate benefit, since it had always stood upon a well-themed ruleset), but this left it in the unenviable position of trying to claw and fight for shelf space amidst the surge of d20 books, without using that same advantage itself. If Green Knight had produced any of the notable books they had in their queue, they might have done so, but as it was they lost much of the shelf space they had left, and with the Pendragon RPG receiving even less attention in stores, it was inevitably doomed.
The Fiction Line: 1998-2002
The story of Pendragon’s Fiction Line is a bit more cheery.
It began at Chaosium in 1997 and was originally designed very much in the mold of the Call of Cthulhu fiction line. It was intended to be a line of new reprints of out-of-print stories that would complement and support the gaming line. As with the Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, an external editor was brought on board to select and package the fiction. This was Raymond H. Thompson, a professor and Arthurian scholar.
Chaosium had begun the line with a new edition of The Arthurian Companion (1997), which they had previously printed as a game accessory shortly after the release of the Pendragon RPG. They then followed that up with Percival and the Presence of God (1997) and had two other books in process when they lost the rights to the line. Green Knight managed to get the first of those, Arthur, the Bear of Britain (1998) out late the next year, and thus their Pendragon Fiction line was rolling.
Corless brought James Lowder on board to oversee the fiction line in 1999, and Lowder had good experience in publishing and editing which ultimately allowed him to be much more successful than his counterparts on the RPG line. In 2000 the line started booming. Lowder continued publishing older works, introduced by Raymond Thompson, but also produced original Arthurian works, including two new collections of short stories and a new novel, Exiled from Camelot. Between 1998 and 2002 Green Knight published a total of 11 books in the Pendragon Fiction line, plus an even more expanded edition of The Arthurian Companion.
With their Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, Chaosium had faced the problem of specialty science-fiction, fantasy, and horror book stores shying away from the books due to the prominence of RPG branding. So with the Pendragon Fiction line they’d minimized the game connections. The name “Pendragon Fiction” could be understood totally separate from the RPG, and in case it was a very small line of type on the book’s spine or back cover.
Ironically, this caused the line to have the opposite problem. Specialty stores still found the connection too tight, but now game stores were less willing to carry these fiction books because of the minimized gaming connection.
Under Green Knight, penetration of the fiction books into game stores was further decreased because the Pendragon books were no longer connected with the more successful (and more clearly game-connected) Call of Cthulhu Fiction line. Thus, sales for the Pendragon Fiction line fell a bit under Green Knight, and the success of the line was ultimately dependent upon the more mercurial book trade.
The Pendragon Fiction line still did moderately well. The books were well reviewed, though there were some questions about audience. Casual readers sometimes found Thompson’s introductions too scholarly, while scholarly readers sometimes found the content of the books too casual.
Nonetheless, thanks to a combination of superior line editing and solid enough sales, the Pendragon Fiction line produced twice as many books as Green Knight’s RPG line and continued a full year after the RPG line faded away. However by late 2002 things were turning quite bad, and not even the Fiction line would survive.
Other Lines: 2001-2003
Corless believed in the synergistic possibilities of multiple lines covering the same topics. Besides the fiction line and the RPG line he also had plans for many other Arthurian entertainments, none of which ultimately came to fruition at Green Knight.
One was a card game, which would give players a chance to interact with the Arthurian legend in a more strategic form.
Later, after fiction and RPG publication shut down, Corless would look toward a genre he’d wanted to pursue in the past: computer games. He arranged a deal to produce a text-based online game with my company, Skotos Tech, in 2003, and was also considering graphical strategy games.
Unfortunately the pressures placed upon the publishing arm of Green Knight were in the end sufficient to shut down all operations, including these.
Green Knight’s Camlann: 2002-2005
Ultimately Green Knight was doomed to face about every ill fate possible.
First up were leftover debts from Chaosium. Throughout its lifetime Green Knight was faced with printers, artists, and authors who were owed money by Chaosium, and though Green Knight was under no actual obligation to resolve these old debts, in many cases Corless choose to. (Some of this was good will, but some of these debts were more “real” because Green Knight needed to pay out writers and artists who they wanted to maintain a good relationship with.)
Then, beginning in 2000 the dot-com market crashed, taking with it the capital that was being used to fund Green Knight. This was probably the biggest factor that resulted in the roleplaying line stopping production (though the better-organized fiction line was able to weather than particular storm).
Then in late 2002 Green Knight’s fulfillment house (and landlord) Wizard’s Attic started floundering, resulting in increasingly late payments to all of its publishers. By 2003, when Wizard’s Attic went down amidst the d20 crash, Green Knight was one of many gaming publishers out considerable money. In fact, given that Green Knight never published anything following the Wizard’s Attic crash, they can probably be counted among its casualties.
With their warehouse space lost and their distribution in shambles, Green Knight needed to find a new company to do their fulfillment. They choose Osseum Entertainment–who themselves crashed shortly thereafter, utterly sealing Green Knight’s fate.
Despite the terrible sequence of events, Corless closed down Green Knight in a thoughtful and ethical manner.
First, he made sure that his freelancers were taken care of. Rights were generally returned to authors, and kill fees paid as appropriate. The Arthurian card game Green Knight had been working on would eventually be released as Camelot Legends, published by Z-Man Games.
In 2004 Corless sold the rights to the Pendragon RPG, along with remaining stock, to White Wolf, who has since published a streamlined fifth edition (2005) and the long-awaited The Great Pendragon Campaign (2006) which details the full 80-year chronology for Pendragon for the first time ever.
In 2005, prompted by the meltdown at Osseum, Corless remaindered the Pendragon fiction stock to Paizo Publishing, who continues to offer them at deep discounts.
With their entire inventory gone, Green Knight was pretty much gone too.
Not Dead, Just Sleeping: 2005-2006
For all real purposes, Green Knight Published ceased to exist between 2002, when it published its final fiction books, and 2003 when Wizard’s Attic really went down in flames.
Green Knight’s greatest contribution to the hobby overall was probably keeping the Pendragon line alive between 1997 when Chaosium ceased publication and 2005 when White Wolf began. Based upon the several years of downturn that Chaosium experienced at the time, it’s unlikely that any Pendragon books would have otherwise been published in that time period (and more likely that the line would still be languishing with them today, whereas Corless was instead willing to give it up when he realized that he couldn’t do it justice).
The quality of Pendragon’s fiction line, based on its classic reprints and new anthologies, meanwhile, might have helped to convince some book sellers to take a closer look at fiction put out by game publishers.
Finally, James Lowder’s new experience packaging fiction for Green Knight ultimately led him to put together fiction packages for other small companies, including a set of successful zombie anthologies for Eden Studios, some Silver Age Sentinels books for Guardians of Order, and an upcoming Astounding Hero Tales pulp book for Hero Games. It seems unlikely that these small publishers would be publishing fiction today if not for the experience provided by Green Knight (which itself traces a path back to Greg Stafford attending a NecronomiCon back in the early 1990s, and thus deciding to publish Cthulhu fiction). Our industry is tightly connected, and lessons learned in one segment, even from a short-lived company like Green Knight, eventually help others.
Today Green Knight does still exist as a company, and it retains rights to the Pendragon Fiction line and to a Pendragon computer game. It is entirely possibly that it will rise up again, like Arthur from Avalon, to pursue these old projects. But as of this writing, it has not yet.
Thanks to James Lowder for very extensive notes and thoughts about Green Knight. Any particularly insightful connections in this piece are probably his. This article is otherwise based on my own experiences with Green Knight. I had the unique luck to layout their first fiction book and put together their first two RPG books (all of which had originally been prepared for Chaosium). James was also kind enough to accept one of my short stories for his “Legends of the Pendragon” anthology.