I decided this month to return to the heart of Designers & Dragons: company histories. Thus I offer up my 62nd complete RPG company history, on Midkemia Press. If I were placing this article in the actual Designers & Dragons book, I’d put it as the first article in part three, which described “The Third Wave” of publishers that appeared from 1980-1984 (though Midkemia was a hair earlier than any of those in the actual book, with its publications starting in 1979). I think that Gamelords (pages 129-132) offers a pretty nice contrast of another company filling a sort of similar niche in the industry. —SA, 2/5/12
This article was originally published as Designers & Dragons: The Column #13 on RPGnet. Its publication followed the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011) and preceded the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 00s.
Midkemia Press was a small publisher of generic FRPG supplements that was most active in the early ’80s. Though their impact on the RPG field was relatively small, the fiction that Midkemia Press spawned has been higher profile than almost anything else that originated in the gaming field.
The Press Gang: 1975-1977
The story of Midkemia Press begins in 1975 when UCSD student Conan La Motte came across a copy of a brand-new game called Dungeons & Dragons (1975) while he was visiting Los Angeles — a few hours up the coast. He was immediately struck by the creative game, but felt it needed some help, so he produced the Tome of Mid-Kimia (1975?), a very small-press digest-sized book that briefly defined the “Land of Darkening Shadows”, outlined different sorts of adventures (including the “town adventure”, which we’ll return to), and copied various tables for easier use. It was mainly intended for local use, and it’s unlikely that many copies were printed.
LaMot’s fellow students were interested in the new game, and D&D quickly became the newest fad for a group of them. However, the group quickly began to diverge from original D&D game, changing mechanics to suit their own interests and knowledge — not only of Medieval history, but also of battles fought in the SCA. The result was a game system closely derived from D&D that they called “The Tome of Midkemia”.
Looking through the histories of other companies from this time period, we can guess that the original D&D game was reworked pretty frequently. David Hargrave’s The Arduin Grimoire (1977, 1979), Gamelords’ Thieves’ Guild (1980), and Kevin Siembieda’s Palladium RPG (1981, 1983) all had similar genesises.
Gamers Stephen Abrams and Jon Everson created a new campaign setting hand in hand with this new game system. They called it the “First Midkemian Campaign”.
The first true Midkemia games were run in 1976 at UC San Diego for a thriving group of players. Among those early participants was Raymond Feist, who will quickly become much more important in the history of Midkemia Press. For a time this group was called the “Thursday Gamers”, though they would become the “Friday Gamers” in later years as schedules changed. By the campaign’s height, in the early 1980s, there were at least 12 different GMs running games within the shared Midkemia world. As students left the college, the particular rules and background of Midkemia sometimes spread even beyond these “official” groups.
The world of Midkemia had one feature that made it somewhat unique among the early roleplaying campaigns: cities. Judges Guild was rolling out its own massive City-State of the Invincible Overlord (1976+) around the same time, but the Midkemia players went a step beyond and made cities into a true passion. Jon Everson and Conan La Motte got the ball rolling by creating a complete city for play — building upon La Motte’s original ideas for a “town adventure”. Soon, many other contributors to the Midkemian Campaign were creating cities of their own.
Soon, we all discovered that a well-run city was excellent fun in its own right; in fact, many times it was more entertaining than a dungeon or wilderness for the battle-weary.Introduction, Cities (1979)
At that time, there were likely countless other groups across the United States that were modding D&D‘s rules and creating their own worlds. However, the Midkemia gamers went beyond personal creation, and that’s why we remember them today. In the late ’70s, Jon Everson and Stephen Abrams decided to create a gaming company to produce FRPG products. Though the company was originally called “Abrams & Everson”, it became Midkemia Press after they received La Motte’s permission to use the name for “all future time”.
The Publication History of Midkemia Press: 1979-1983
Midkemia Press started publishing with Cities (1979) — a book that built on the group’s biggest strength. It was a delightful book of plot hooks for urban adventures, spread across numerous random encounter tables that designated who players met based on their location within a city. Assassins might try and join the party or drunks might harass them. The result was both innovative and well-received. Though adventures were common at the time, a book of GM tools like Cities was more of a rarity.
Following the success of Cities, Midkemia Press quickly grew. What had been a two-person company soon expanded to five. Computer systems analyst Stephen Abrams and experimental psychologist Jon Everson were joined by biologist (and artist) April Abrams, chemist (and calligrapher) Anita Everson, and communications expert (and writer) Raymond Feist.
Midkemia’s next book was The City of Carse (1980), a building-by-building description of a seaside burg, following directly in the footsteps of Judges Guild’s City-State. Midkemia later published two similar city books: Tulan of the Isles (1981) and Jonril: Gateway to the Sunken Lands (1982). After Cities, it’s these urban settings — all located within the First Midkemian Campaign — that are the best remembered publications from Midkemia Press’ brief years of publication.
Midkemia Press’ publication peak came in 1981, which saw the publication of four different books. The first of these was Tulan. That was followed by two books that differed somewhat from the company’s production to date. The Black Tower (1981), which indeed described a tower, was Midkemia’s only true adventure. Towns of the Outlands (1981), meanwhile, described not one city but instead six different villages. It was more notable for being the first Midkemia Press supplement written by designers from outside the UC San Diego group. 1981 ended with the publication of a second edition of Cities (1981). To that date, Midkemia Press’ books had featured simple one-color cardstock covers. The second edition of Cities instead was graced by a full-color glossy cover.
With full-color covers and external designers, Midkemia Press increasingly looked like it was poised to become a real mover in the RPG field. Instead, the company published just two more books, the aforementioned Jonril: Gateway to the Sunken Lands and Heart of the Sunken Lands (1983), both of which were also produced with the same higher standards as the revised Cities. The last book was by Rudy Kraft — best-known for his work on RuneQuest supplements like Snake Pipe Hollow (1979) and Griffin Mountain (1981). It did for the wilderness what Cities did for urban settings. A GM could now consult tables, sub-tables, and sub-sub-tables to generate wilderness encounters; players even got to fill in a map as they explored the Sunken Lands.
A last hoorah from the Abrams and Feist appeared in Sorcerer’s Apprentice #17 (1983), which featured a pair of articles by them. “The Village of Hoxley” described a small village in Midkemia while “Hard Times in Hoxley” offered up an adventure set therein. It was the last notable publication from Midkemia Press (though we’ve actually skipped some other external work they did in 1981, a topic we’ll return to).
By 1983, the RPG market was entering its first bust cycle. The company by that time had diversified a bit, with Stephen Abrams producing some computer software in the early ’80s, but it wasn’t enough. Midkemia Press realized this and opted to end publication. After 1983, Midkemia Press instead became primarily a rights holder for Midkemian games … though we’ll see a few resurrections of different sorts have appeared over the years.
Before leaving Midkemia’s most active period behind, we should note a few things:
First, their game system, “The Tome of Midkemia” was never published … though the company’s principals have expressed interest in doing so even in recent years. Instead, the Midkemia supplements were all published for general use. The supplements’ “generic” stats nonetheless did manage to reveal a few of the unique elements of the Midkemia rules. Fighters, thieves, and clerics all appeared, but so did lesser path magicians, merchants, and shaman-priets, suggesting some points of divergence from the original D&D game.
Second, the world of Midkemia as described in those six later supplements was quite innovative for the RPG field in the early ’80s. In 1980, when The City of Carse appeared, info on other early campaigns like Blackmoor, Glorantha, Greyhawk, and Tékumel remained brief and scattered because it tended to focus more on adventures than setting. Though some pure setting books were produced — like The First Fantasy Campaign (1977) and The World of Greyhawk (1980) — they provided overviews without going into any depth. Judges Guild’s City-State of the Invincible Overlord (1976) was one of the few settings that matched what Midkemia Press was doing. By the time other heavily supported worlds like ICE’s Middle-earth (1982+) and Columbia’s Hârn (1983) appeared, Midkemia Press’ publications were already coming to an end.
Midkemia Press’ innovation in the world of campaign settings alone would have been a fine legacy for a small RPG publisher of the early 1980s, but the world of Midkemia would end up striking it much, much richer.
Raymond Feist’s Midkemia: 1977-Present
For that story, we return to Raymond Feist, who had quickly become a Senior Editor and partner at Midkemia Press. That was just a part-time gig, though. He’d been working professionally in health and human services until he found himself abruptly unemployed. This was the result of a tax revolt centered around California’s Prop 13 (1978), which dramatically affected the State’s ability to provide services by limiting the speed of property tax increase.
Fortunately, Feist had another iron in the fire. He’d been playing with Midkemia fiction for a while when Stephen Abrams suggested that he tell the story of how “Greater Path Magic” came to Midkemia. The result was a novel of a boy who became a magician, set in Midkemia 500 years earlier than the RPG products. Feist started the novel in 1977, finished it in 1979, and sold it to Doubleday in 1980. They published it a few years later as Magician (1982).
Feist completed the trilogy of books that became known as “The Riftwar Saga” over the next few years with the publication of Silverthorn (1985) and A Darkness of Sethanon (1986). They were well-received and quickly became one of the more popular fantasy series of ’80s. Feist has since published 25 additional Midkemia books, spanning nine more series — the most recent of which, “The Chaoswar Saga”, is currently being published.
I don’t write fantasy; I write historical novels about an imaginary place. At least that’s how I look at it.Raymond Feist, “The Real History of Midkemia” (1998)
Because of his unique position, describing a world created by a roleplaying group, Feist has long said that he’s writing historical novels, not fantasy. However, over the years Midkemia’s creative pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. In the earliest days, Feist was writing what many would call gaming fiction; he set his stories in places like the Sunken Lords and revealed how Midkemia Press’ world came to be. Today, Feist is instead the prime mover in the world of Midkemia, leaving Stephen Abrams to revamp the world’s source material as Feist rewrites its history.
Midkemia’s unique creation has also resulted in one bit of controversy: according to Feist, the original Midkemian Campaign run by Abrams and Everson contained some minor elements borrowed from Tékumel, as described in TSR’s Empire of the Petal Throne (1975). Those elements were, of course, not brought into any of Midkemia Press’ published books. However, Feist wasn’t aware of this genesis, so some of these elements did find their way into the world of Kelewan — which opposed Midkemia in the Riftwar. Feist says the ultimate impact of Tékumel on the novels is “superficial”, with other sources like Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx and Jack Vance’s Big Planet being just as important.
Ultimately, we outsiders can never know the exact influence of the EPT world filtered through a house campaign upon Feist’s writing. Suffice to say, it might be more than professional writer Raymond Feist is comfortable with and probably is a lot less than fans have suggested over the years.
Before closing out on the topic of Midkemia Press and authorship, it’s worth noting that the Midkemia gang had one other future writer among its members. Science Fiction writer David Brin was working on his Masters in Applied Physics and his PhD in Space Science at UC San Diego in the late ’70s and early ’80s and thus he came into the orbit of Midkemia. He’s credited in various Midkemia Press books, including a note on his “contributions” to the city of Carse.
However, it was author Raymond Feist who took Midkemia and ran with it. His success with Midkemia has been reflected in latter-day success for Midkemia Press, primarily thanks to computer games they were able to license — a topic that we’ll return to. First, though, we’re going to touch upon Midkemia Press’ last major interaction with the tabletop RPG field, which happened in the ’80s thanks to an existing relationship with long-time RPG publisher, Chaosium.
The Chaosium Rebirth: 1986-1988
During their years of publication, most of Midkemia Press’ focus was spent on their own books. However, they went further afield to work on two other projects. The first was a pair of articles written for Flying Buffalo in Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which we’ve already touched upon. More notably, they were among the contributors to Chaosium’s Thieves’ World (1981), published during that same year that marked the company’s greatest period of activity.
Thieves’ World was itself a very innovative product in the gaming field, as is described more fully in the Brief History of Chaosium (see Designers & Dragons, page 85). That wasn’t because it minutely detailed the peoples and places of a city, but instead because it brought together many of the top designers of the gaming industry, from Dave Arneson through Marc Miller to Ken St. Andre. Among those contributors was none other than Midkemia Press.
However, Midkemia Press wasn’t just a contributor to Thieves’ World. They were the biggest contributor other than (perhaps) Chaosium itself. Where most of the external contributors to Thieves’ World wrote just 4-8 pages for the book — converting characters to “their” own RPG — Midkemia Press authored about a third of the completed product. Most of that was focused on Midkemia’s strengths: encounter tables for the city of Sanctuary and descriptions of many of its most important places.
Given this existing relationship, it’s not a surprise that a few years after Midkemia Press ended publication, Chaosium licensed their books for reprints This kicked off with three books published under Chaosium’s “Universal Supplement Series” brand: a third edition of Cities (1986) and second editions of Carse (1986) and Tulan of the Isles (1987) — the latter also including the “Village of Hoxley” setting and adventure. The material was edited and expanded by Chaosium editors William Dunn and Lynn Willis. Among other things, the old D&D-like stats were removed and replaced with BRP-like percentages. Cities later got done one more time as RuneQuest Cities (1988), published by Avalon Hill
And that was the end of Chaosium’s brief resurrection of the Midkemia sourcebooks.
The reason for this ending is easy enough to speculate. Chaosium was headed into its first downturn right around the same time, thanks in large part to the licensing of RuneQuest to Avalon Hill (see Designers & Dragons pages 88-90). Some of Chaosium’s lines never returned afterward, and the “Universal Supplement Series” was one of those.
However, the market had also changed between 1983 and 1988. Most notably, building-by-building city descriptions were no longer in vogue, instead replaced by books like TSR’s Lankhmar: City of Adventure (1985, 1993), which randomized less important buildings within the city, and Flying Buffalo’s Citybooks (1982, 1984, 1987, etc.) which instead focused upon a handful of important buildings that could be placed in any city.
Even today, Midkemia Press’ supplements from the early ’80s are quite well thought of, but the gaming field has also moved on.
Latter-Day Midkemia: 1993-Present
Despite their publication ending in 1983, Midkemia Press continues to exist and has occasionally risen back to the forefront.
In 1993 they licensed Betrayal at Krondor (1993), a very well-received computer RPG that was named Best Game of the Year by Computer Gaming World. It was one of the most novelistic of the early CRPGs, thanks to its division into chapters that told a complete story. When Raymond Feist later novelized the game as Krondor: The Betrayal (1998) he credited game designers Neil Hallford and John Cutter as co-authors of the original story, reflecting the same sort of shared conception that had resulted in Midkemia’s creation in the first place. Midkemia has since appeared in two other computer games, the CRPG Return to Krondor (1998) and the text-based Midkemia Online (2009), but they haven’t received the same attention as the original.
Midkemia has been mapped in 5 mile hexes over a significant portion of the surface. We know the history of the Kingdom (and to a lesser degree Great Kesh and Queg) for over 1,000 years. We have detailed city maps of a dozen cities and a score of towns.Raymond Feist, online questions (1995)
In 1997, twenty years after the company’s formation, Midkemia Press returned to the public eye via a method that several companies from the ’70s have used: the internet. This has allowed them to make their original books available again in two ways.
First, they sold their remaining stock, which consisted of those final books printed with full-color covers: Cities second edition, Jonril, and Heart of the Sunken Land. The last two sold out quickly, but Midkemia was selling Cities until 2010.
Second, they made some of their early books available as PDFs. The Black Tower (1997) appeared first, then Towns of the Outlands (2000). Those both continue to be available for free. After Cities dropped out of print, Midkemia created a PDF “third edition” for sale through their web site.
For a time, it looked like the d20 boom might cause a larger-scale resurrection of the world of Midkemia as a gaming setting. As early as 2003, Midkemia Press was fielding licensing requests for d20 books, but they never came about. The last possibility fell apart in 2007, by which time the d20 market had already crashed and burned.
Though Midkemia Press hasn’t published any new books in almost thirty years, their continuing web presence, and the recent conversion of Cities to PDF suggests that the tabletop field may not have heard the last of the company yet.
Links of Note
The following links will provide you with more info on Midkemia Press:
- Midkemia Press Web Site
- The Black Tower (free download)
- Towns of the Outlands (free download)
- The Raymond Feist Website
What to Read Next
The following histories (found in Designers & Dragons) contain more information on some of the topics in this article:
- For another leader in the creation of detailed cities, read Judges Guild (pages 65-70), especially the The Settings of Yore: The Wilderlands box (page 69).
- For other companies working on D&D-originated game systems, read Gamelords (pages 129-132) and Palladium (pages 155-163).
- For the companies that reprinted some of Midkemia’s books, read Chaosium (pages 82-96) and Avalon Hill (pages 175-180).
- For the origins of the d20 boom which never quite made it to Midkemia, read Wizards of the Coast (pages 276-303).
Thanks to Stephen Abrams for looking at this article.