Designers & Dragons in now being Kickstarted by Feder & Schwert in a new German edition. I hope that some of my German-language readers (and some inveterate collectors) will find the new printing of interest.
Their new edition will be mostly like the Evil Hat edition, with the possible addition of some stretch-goal articles that I hope to see by Thomas Römer, Francesco Nepitello, and Oliver Hoffmann. However, I’m aware that the industry has moved on a bit since the English-language Kickstarter four years ago, so I’ve offered to update five histories for Feder & Schwert. As a result, they’ll really be producing Designers & Dragons 2.1e. (Which five? Basically the five that they asked me to update.)
I don’t want to leave my English readers out, so I’ve gotten everyone’s OK to also present those historical updates here. This is the first of them, an updated look at Chaosium; the other four should follow in the next several months.
To read the full history of Chaosium, you should first read pages 247-275 of Designers & Dragons: The ’70s. Then, continue here.
Downturn Meets d20: 1997-2004
With the foundation of Issaries, Greg Stafford officially left the company that he had created 25 years earlier. However, he didn’t entirely divest himself of interest in Chaosium. Stafford kept just less than a third of the stock in the company — an amount matched by editor-in-chief Lynn Willis and by new president Charlie Krank. Stafford would be a silent partner for the next decade and a half, leaving Krank and Willis to run the company with the support of customer support guy Dustin Wright.
Their position wasn’t an enviable one, because the downturn that began with the MSGS crash would stretch on for several years. Not only did the company have piles of nearly useless inventory, but it was also more than half-a-million dollars in debt — owed primarily to the IRS, the state of California, and the company’s printers. Chaosium’s principals offered up some additional investment to keep the lights on, but Chaosium was still running on fumes. It had no paid staff, products prepared for publication before the downturn sat around for years, and loans from friends were needed to get the era’s most notable roleplaying books to press. Even then, some of the loans and payments to freelancers working on these books wouldn’t be settled for more than a decade.
Those notable books included the well-received adventure Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999) — which clocked in at 440 pages, making it one of the largest roleplaying campaigns published to that date — and a pseudo-leatherbound 20th anniversary edition of Call of Cthulhu (2001). However, these scattered publications were the exception for Chaosium, not the rule; the company’s roleplaying production from 1999-2003 was at a historic low, with just one to five RPG books appearing each year.
Chaosium wasn’t the only roleplaying publisher having problems in the ’00s. The d20 explosion (2000+) was simultaneously impacting every non-d20 publisher, but Chaosium did its best to ride this industry-sized problem to new success. While re-releasing the Elric! rules as Stormbringer fifth edition (2001), they also published a d20 version of the game called Dragon Lords of Melniboné (2001). Chaosium supported the d20 game with an adventure called Slaves of Fate (2001), but the real intent was clearly to draw people into the fold of BRP.
Rather than produce a d20 Call of Cthulhu themselves, Chaosium licensed those rights to Wizards of the Coast, which was probably the right thing to do during a downturn that involved tight cashflow and printer problems. After Wizards published Monte Cook and John Tynes’ Call of Cthulhu (2002), Chaosium dedicated most of their roleplaying production over the next few years to publishing new editions of Keith Herber’s classic Lovecraft Country books (2002-2004), now featuring dual BRP & d20 stats. This split focus kept Chaosium from benefitting as much from d20 as some publishers, but it also isolated them from its crash, which could easily have been the final nail in the company’s coffin. The attention to these d20 reprints also delayed other projects that Chaosium was considering. Pulp Cthulhu was one of the most troubled: it began life as a Call of Cthulhu book spearheaded by Wright and edited by James Lowder, then became a d20 book, and by 2007 would become a Call of Cthulhu book again, now edited by William Jones.
d20 wasn’t the only major development that Chaosium faced in 2000. That year the company was also weathering a change brought on by spin-off Wizard’s Attic. As is more fully described in Wizard’s Attic’s mini-history, Eric Rowe was then turning the Attic from a seller of weird trinkets into a consolidator for roleplaying publishers. He was now warehousing, marketing, and selling the products of numerous small publishers. This required more warehouse space than was available in Chaosium’s west Oakland offices, so Rowe rented new, larger space at the Oakland Army base, which was available for commercial use following the 1999 closure of the military base. When Wizard’s Attic moved, Chaosium decided to go with them, joined by spin-offs Green Knight and Issaries.
This led to problems in 2003 when Wizard’s Attic crashed. In part due to the d20 bust and in part due to other problems described in Wizard’s Attic’s mini-history, the consolidator went under. Wizard’s Attic and Chaosium argued about who owed money to whom, but either way, Chaosium’s sales and marketing infrastructure was suddenly gone, and more importantly their office space was too!
More than once it’s been said: Chaosium should have died then. That was the case after the Wizard’s Attic collapse. Charlie Krank would later say that 2003 was one of the company’s worst years ever, but Krank and Willis once more soldiered on. For a short time, Krank ran Chaosium out of his house, again without paid staff. However, he’d soon rent new office space in Hayward, to ensure that the company remained an official business. For the first time in its history, Chaosium was gone from the Oakland/Albany area, where it had dwelled for almost three decades.
[W]e are once again on the brink of becoming a profitable company that can pay [its] contributors and employees.Charlie Krank, letter to writers and artists (December 2004)
Though Krank was setting down new roots for Chaosium in 2004, the internet was increasingly wondering if the company had died. It wasn’t just that book production had been low for years and that the official web site had temporarily disappeared. Freelancers were now publicly complaining about their missing payments.
Late that year, Krank announced to writers and artists that things were actually on the upswing: he said that the company had nearly paid off its debts from the late ’90s. Chaosium still owed to money to individual creators and to friends who had offered loans, but the institutional debts owed to the government and printers — the ones that could keep the company from functioning — had been dealt with.
Chaosium could move on and prosper.
But it would still be a long process, and it would require a number of revolutionary changes.
The Monograph Revolution: 2003-2015
The first revolution took inspiration from Greg Stafford’s “unfinished works”:
Chaosium established a new line of fan-created roleplaying supplements by applying the same methods of cheap printing, low print runs, and direct sales. They debuted the series with Chris Jerome’s Parapsychologist’s Handbook (2003) for Call of Cthulhu.
These “monographs” had all kinds of apparent advantages. They were kind to cash flow because they were cheaply printed at a local copy center and bound with cloth tape. (In later years, Chaosium would find a local printer who could professionally squarebind them and eventually moved to print-on-demand production.) They were kind to staff time because they were entirely produced out-of-house by creators who wrote, edited, illustrated, and even laid out the books themselves. They were kind to revenue because Chaosium could sell them direct, earning all of the profits, not just a share from the distribution chain. Finally, they were kind to creative fans, who gained a level of input that was then unheard of in the industry, with just a minimum of gatekeeping from Chaosium.
Mind you, there were disadvantages too. The financial benefits were somewhat illusory because of the high per-capita printing costs demanded by the short print runs; though Chaosium didn’t have to pay a lot to produce the books, their returns were also limited. More notably, the monographs were not all professional: some looked decent, but others were ugly or poorly edited. Finally, the monographs pulled Chaosium out of retail stories, a move that a few roleplaying companies tried in the ’00s, and one that’s not sustainable without a very popular line.
The semi-professional monographs quickly became the vast majority of Chaosium’s production. Most were standalone adventures for Call of Cthulhu, with some adventure anthologies — such as Halloween Horror, the first of several collections containing the best scenarios from an annual Halloween contest. Other monographs debuted ambitious settings, including: Cthulhu Invictus (2004), set in ancient Rome; End Time (2004), a long-promised stars-are-right setting; Cthulhu Rising (2005), a SF near-future; and Queensgard (2009), set in an alternate America.
Though Chaosium mostly published monographs for Call of Cthulhu, they also produced four for their fifth edition Stormbringer game: Gods of Chaos (2004), Hawkmoon: Adventures in the Tragic Millennium (2006), Old Hrolmar (2006), and Gods of Law (2007). These were the only Stormbringer books that Chaosium published following the fifth edition’s appearance. Afterward, Chaosium released the perpetual license that they’d signed with Michael Moorcock in the ’70s so that Mongoose Publishing could license Elric and Hawkmoon for its own RuneQuest (2006).
Another of Chaosium’s classic games was gone.
Chaosium’s publication of monographs reached its height in 2009, when they printed over 20. After that, the semi-professional tide began to recede. By 2012, Chaosium was printing just a couple of new monographs each year. The last would be Mission to Epsilon (2015), which appeared in May 2015. A month later, Chaosium blew out their stock of monographs with heavily discounted sales on the print copies (though electronic copies of some would remain for sale).
That was not the end of Chaosium’s publication of fan material. In December 2017, they would debut the Miskatonic Repository for “Community Content,” built on the blueprint for Wizards of the Coast’s fan-enabling Dungeon Master’s Guild (2016) and part of a larger trend that went back to the advent of Amazon’s Kindle Worlds (2013). But as a PDF-focused site whose content was more obviously the production of the fans, not Chaosium itself, the Miskatonic Repository would be a somewhat different beast — a complement to Chaosium’s own production rather than a replacement.
The BRP Revolution: 2004-2015
Chaosium’s second revolution in the early ’00s was foreshadowed by the publication of Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium System (2002), a new printing of the classic 16-page BRP booklet that accompanied Chaosium games in the early ’80s. It was a nice reminder of the generic system that underlay what had once been many game lines.
Two years later, with a few Cthulhu monographs under their belt, Chaosium expanded the line to include BRP monographs that were essentially reprints of the old RuneQuest 3 booklets: Basic Roleplaying Creatures Book (2004), Basic Roleplaying Magic Book (2004), Basic Roleplaying Players Book (2004), and Basic Roleplaying Gamemaster Book (2005). They were largely intended to reaffirm rights to the material after a confusing few decades of back and forth with Avalon Hill. However, their production nicely dovetailed with work that Jason Durall had begun in 2003 to expand the system. The end result was an impressive new professional publication: Basic RolePlaying: The Chaosium RolePlaying System (2008). In many ways, it fulfilled the promise that Chaosium made back in 1980, when they originally published that 16-page BRP booklet. Durall’s 400-page extravaganza took the final step in the evolution of BRP as a universal system.
Unfortunately, Chaosium wasn’t any more able to publish professional BRP supplements than Call of Cthulhu supplements at the time. Much of BRP‘s support through the ’00s instead came through another deluge of monographs. Chaosium even created some of their own when they reprinted the RQ3 booklets yet another time, as Basic Creatures (2009), Basic Gamemaster (2009), and Basic Magic (2009). Though the books now featured the golden trade dress of the new BRP, they weren’t fully updated to the new gaming system, underlining the disorder of the monograph lines. A few years later, when it was getting back into professional book production, Chaosium published the RQ3 magic system one last time, as The Magic Book (2011) … but it still hadn’t been fully converted!
Since Chaosium was focused on monographs, Alephtar Games — formerly a licensee for Mongoose’s RuneQuest — became the first publisher to produce and distribute BRP supplements into game stores. In short order they released several new settings: Rome: The Life and Death of the Republic (2009), The Celestial Empire (2010), Crusaders of the Amber Coast (2010), Dragon Lines: Guardians of the Forbidden City (2010), and Merrie England (2010). Most of these books were published through Cubicle 7’s partnership program; after that fell apart, Alephtar published Basic Roleplaying Mecha (2013) through Chronicle City and Wind on the Steppes (2014) through Chaosium themselves.
Chaosium would eventually follow suit. After releasing a monograph-style BRP adventure called In Search of the Trollslayer (2009) into distribution, Chaosium began producing new BRP settings. They were erratic in topic and frequency, but their quantity slowly grew. The early ’10s saw: Sarah Newton’s Chronicles of the Future Earth (2010), Troy Wilhelmson’s Devil’s Gulch (2010), Pedro Ziviani’s Mythic Iceland (2012), Troy Wilhelmson’s Astounding Adventures (2013), and Ken Spencer’s Blood Tide (2014) — which together expanded BRP from the Golden Age of Piracy through the Weird Wild West into the Pulp Age and beyond.
The most notable BRP release of the ’10s was Ben Monroe’s Magic World (2012). Monroe had worked in Chaosium’s production office in the late ’80s, and was responsible for the magic system of Stormbringer Fourth Edition (1990), which he created to better reflect the magic of the novels. Now he produced a brand-new fantasy “starter game” for BRP that mixed the Elric! core rules with the seafaring rules from Sailing on the Seas of Fate (1996), the creature book from RuneQuest 3, and the various sorcery spells from Elric! supplements. An Advanced Sorcery (2014) supplement then incorporated additional magic rules from the Elric! system. The result was a great use of historic BRP game systems that were moldering in Chaosium’s archives and a somewhat crucial return to fantasy, following Chaosium’s relinquishment of their Michael Moorcock license.
The idea was that there were some great materials produced for these games, and some brilliant ideas in them. But, due to one thing or another, they never had achieved the recognition they could have.Ben Monroe, Interview, stormbringerrpg.com (2012)
In 2015, it looked like BRP and Magic World might be the future of Chaosium, but they would not outlast the monograph revolution that supported them.
Another Licensing Interlude: 2004-2017
Chaosium saw one last revolution at this time. Back in the ’80s, they’d been one of the most licensed roleplaying companies around, but by the early ’00s, Pagan Publishing was the last licensor standing, and its production was petering out as its principals went their own ways.
Now, Chaosium returned to their licensing roots when they cleverly figured out another way to improve their cash flow: they offered other companies licenses in exchange for product rather than cash. This allowed those other publishers to use the popular Call of Cthulhu game system without much cost to themselves … and also provided Chaosium with stock that they could sell out of their chaosium.com web site.
The result was a renaissance in licensed Call of Cthulhu products. Atomic Overmind Press was one of the first new licensees, publishing a few Cthulhu books by Kenneth Hite (2008). Goodman Games created an “Age of Cthulhu” adventure line (2008-2016), intended to diversify their output beyond the somewhat treacherous shoals of D&D; 4E. OtherWorld Creations put out a variety of well-received Cthulhu adventures (2008-2009) before they became more interested in Paizo’s Pathfinder (2009). John Wick’s Wicked Dead Brewing Company published a few high-quality PDF adventures related to the Yellow Sign (2009-2010), while Open Design published a licensed adventure anthology, Red Eye of Azathoth (2011), and Golden Goblin Press produced a handful of Call of Cthulhu releases (2013-2017) of their own. Even Pagan Publishing, not-dead-but-sleeping, returned to publish new Cthulhu and Delta Green books (2008-2012) before Arc Dream took over, and eventually produced a new Delta Green game system (2016-Present). Miskatonic River Press emerged as a new Cthulhu publisher (2008-2013) founded by Call of Cthulhu legend Keith Herber; sadly Herber passed away in 2009, but his company continued for a few years more. Cubicle 7 was the most extensive licensee: they published a series of Cthulhu Britannica supplements (2009-2015), a World War Cthulhu line (2013-2017), and a BRP-based Laundry Files game (2010-2015) before their license concluded at the end of 2017. And theirs wasn’t the only Cthulhu-focused war RPG: Modiphius was simultaneously producing Achtung Cthulhu! (2013-Present), a Call of Cthulhu and Savage Worlds game line.
Chaosium even signed off on some Cthulhu licenses not related to the actual Call of Cthulhu game system: they allowed Fantasy Flight Games to publish both the Call of Cthulhu Collectible Card Game (2004) and the second edition of Arkham Horror (2005).
As with their monograph publication, Chaosium’s new style of licensing wasn’t an entirely healthy habit, especially not as shipping rates climbed. Instead, it was another short-term solution that helped Chaosium’s bottom line at the time.
The Old Chaosium Finale: 2004-2015
Taken as a whole, Chaosium’s expansion into monographs, a new BRP, and product licensing have the same arc of a rise and abrupt fall that has plagued the company throughout its history: they proliferated for a time, and then they suddenly disappeared.
For once, however, the reasons were good. Those short-term fixes helped Chaosium’s bottom line and allowed it to slowly return to professional publication over the course of a decade. However, Chaosium was still very limited in its production of entirely new material. Instead, some of their professional books were updates of classic supplements such as Shadows of Yog-Sothoth (2004), Mansions of Madness (2007), H.P. Lovecraft ‘s Dreamlands (2011), Curse of the Chthonians (2011), and Cthulhu by Gaslight (2012). Others were polished monographs that made the jump to professional books, including Cthulhu Invictus (2009), Ripples from Carcosa (2014), and Secrets of Tibet (2014). Still others were new rulebooks that mimicked the beautiful layouts of German editions, including Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition (2004), Cthulhu: Dark Ages (2004), and Malleus Monstorum (2006). Amidst all of that, Chaosium published one or two totally new products each year, such as the Tatters of the King (2006) campaign and the long-awaited Arkham Now (2010) setting — though other new publications were continually delayed, such as the long-promised Pulp Cthulhu.
Chaosium produced fiction throughout the downturn, and that continued now that Chaosium was improving. They published Robert M. Price mythos anthologies like The Tsathoggua Cycle (2005) and The Yith Cycle (2010) and classic horror anthologies by authors like Arthur Machen (2001-2005) and Robert Chambers (2004). They also brought in new anthologists, such as David Conyers and William Jones. In later years, Chaosium tested the water with science-fiction offerings such as the novel A Long Way Home (2012), which began life as Traveller fiction, and the Extreme Planets (2014) anthology. They also expanded their horror line beyond Cthulhu fiction with anthologies like the fairy tale-zombie mash up of Once Upon an Apocalypse (2014), the western horror of Edge of Sundown (2015), and the werewolf stories of Mark of the Beast (2016), paralleling the expansion of the BRP line at the same time. Unfortunately, Chaosium’s fiction publication also demonstrated their remaining weakness. Though Chaosium had improved their cashflow enough to pay their printers and to get an increasing number of products to press, they weren’t paying their fiction editors or authors promptly. Add in problems with attaining ebooks rights for older books and continuing issues with distribution, and the fiction line wasn’t nearly as healthy as its publication schedule suggested.
Nonetheless, Chaosium expanded and began hiring new staff. It became a family business in 2007 when president Charlie Krank brought on his daughter, Meghan McLean; she started out as a proofreader and eventually moved over to layout and art direction. Similarly, family friend Nick Nacario joined in 2008 to help in the warehouse; he also ended up doing layout work before becoming the company’s fiction editor.
Unfortunately, Chaosium hit another major road block in 2008: health issues forced editor-in-chief Lynn Willis to leave the company. At the time, Willis was the most long-serving Chaosium employee — with 30 years’ experience under his belt — and also the brilliant light that had held the Cthulhu line together for over a decade.
Lynn’s guidance and effort have been a cornerstone of Chaosium over the years. Everyone here appreciates his skill and sense of humor, and the work he did to develop Call of Cthulhu and hundreds of other books for Chaosium. Whatever the future might bring, he will always be part of Chaosium.Charlie Krank, “An Open Letter to the Chaosium Community,” chaosium.com (September 2008)
Chaosium continued on. In spite of Willis’ departure, Chaosium was publishing a half-dozen professional RPG publications a year by 2010. After almost fifteen years of dramatically slowed production and almost a decade of dependence on small-press monographs, the company seemed to be returning to its old strengths. Then in 2012 Chaosium turned to the industry’s newest savior: Kickstarter. They still had some old debt out there, as well as new debt rising from the fiction line, but Kickstarter could have been enough to get the company entirely on its feet again.
Chaosium’s first Kickstarter, for a new edition of Horror on the Orient Express, launched in August 2012. It grossed $207,804 from 1,374 backers, making it one of the ten most popular RPG products on Kickstarter that year. Chaosium then knocked it out of the park with their second Kickstarter, for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition. It launched in May 2013 and earned $561,836 from 3,668 backers, trailing only Exalted 3e that year among roleplaying Kickstarter campaigns.
Call of Cthulhu 7e was Chaosium’s most forward-looking project since the new BRP system five years earlier. Authors Mike Mason and Paul Fricker were producing the first major revision of Call of Cthulhu since Lynn Willis’ fifth edition (1992). They updated the game with innovations from the last few decades of RPG design, such as a variety of new ways to roll dice — including simpler opposed checks, new pushing checks that increased player agency, and bonus and penalty dice. Following the Kickstarters, in August 2013, Chaosium brought Mason on as Call of Cthulhu‘snew line editor, inspiring hope for new stability for the game.
Unfortunately, those seemingly successful Kickstarters also created Chaosium’s latest opportunity to precipitously plunge because they repeated, and even magnified, many of the mistakes made by other, earlier Kickstarters. The biggest problem was underestimating shipping costs, especially for overseas destinations. Most overseas backers were charged $20 for shipping that ultimately cost $60 to $140. Poor attention to detail also led to a 10% damage and loss rate, which caused many of those incredibly expensive international orders to be reshipped. Chaosium further fell prey to stretch-goal bloat, especially on the Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter, where goals for medallions, miniatures, coffee mugs, and even a $115 “seasoned traveler trunk” pulled the company away from the core product. The most egregiously ridiculous stretch goal was probably sending staff members McLean and Nacario to Turkey for research in January 2013. Meanwhile, these stretch goals made problems with shipment costs even worse: charging $1 to ship a heavy coffee mug clearly was a big problem, as was the fact that Chaosium shipped the various rewards in waves, multiplying the costs.
These Kickstarter issues also worsened Chaosium’s existing problems. Unpaid freelancers saw the money coming in for the Kickstarters and became even more upset about their missing payments. And those payment problems were ongoing amidst the Kickstarter success! James Lowder was forced to delay submission of the Madness on the Orient Express (2014) fiction anthology that he was editing until the full advance payment for the stories (and editing) was actually made!
Though the Kickstarters had seemed very successful at the time, it’s now obvious that the various shipping issues actually turned them into money losers. Both Kickstarters also missed their shipping dates. Horror on the Orient Express (2014) was promised in August 2013, but only appeared in late 2014. Worse, European backers (and even some US backers) hadn’t received their copies by spring 2015! Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition was planned for October 2013, but by the end of 2014 had only appeared as a PDF. Several months into 2015, Chaosium claimed that the books were at the printers … but this would turn out not to be the case.
Then the other shoe dropped …
The Board Room Revolution: 2013-2015
Between those two Kickstarters, in January 2013, Chaosium was struck by a tragedy that would dramatically change the company’s future.
Lynn Willis passed away.
The creator of many of Chaosium’s most successful products of the ’90s was mourned, but his death also created an administrative change: based on its bylaws, Chaosium was required to buy back Willis’ stock. This left Greg Stafford and Charlie Krank each owning just less than 50% of the company.
This potential deadlock raised the question of who held the remaining stock. The next largest chunk of stock, now totaling several percent, was possessed by none other than Sandy Petersen, who’d been given the shares as a gift when he left Chaosium in 1988.
Twenty-five years later, Petersen was just getting involved in the hobbyist community again. In June 2013, his newly founded Petersen Games was Kickstarting Cthulhu Wars (2014), a beautifully produced board game of Cthulhoid warfare. So perhaps it was natural that Petersen decided to get involved in Chaosium again as well. Together, Petersen and Stafford decided to reform Chaosium’s board of directors, with Stafford as president of the board, Petersen as vice-president of the board, and Krank as secretary. Krank remained as president of Chaosium itself, but the company was now being overseen by all three of its major stockholders, who held monthly board meetings using Skype.
By 2015, the board was not happy. Chaosium’s reputation was again taking a beating thanks to its problems with Kickstarter fulfillment, exacerbating old, tired issues of payment and debt. The newest problems had the potential to poison the entire Cthulhu category on Kickstarter — which was something that Petersen took personally, and he had just enough stock to be a swing vote on the board. In May 2015 Petersen approached Stafford and suggested that they remove Krank as president of the company. Afterward, Krank and his daughter, McLean, left Chaosium. Krank’s stock was repurchased, making Stafford once more the clear owner of the company he had founded back in 1975.
We offer new hope, and ask only for your patience.Greg Stafford, “The Great Old Ones have returned!” (June 2015)
June 2015 thus marked a new era for Chaosium. After almost twenty years away, Stafford was once more president, while Petersen became the “chief creative consultant” and general ideas guy. Magic World‘s Ben Monroe was the third new addition to the staff, brought on as the operations manager, to administer the Chaosium office and warehouse in Hayward. A few other staff members such as Mason, Nacario, and Wright continued on.
But this updated management structure would be very short lived.
The New, New Chaosium: 2015-2018
On July 30, 2015, at Gen Con Indy 2015, Greg Stafford announced that Moon Design Publications had become “part of the Chaosium ownership group.” Four new team members were introduced: Rick Meints, President and Secretary; Jeff Richard, Vice President and Creative Director; Michael O’Brien, Vice President of Product Development & Community Outreach; and Neil Robinson, Chief Financial Officer. (Stafford and Petersen would retain some ownership interest and remain as “creative consultants” for the reborn company.)
All four new team members had been part of the RuneQuest and Glorantha fan community of the ’90s.
Rick Meints was a member of the Tales of the Reaching Moon crew that had kept the Gloranthan torch aflame during the IP’s nadir in the ’90s. He’d been publishing Gloranthan materials on his own since the 1999 as Moon Design Publications. That included material for the second Gloranthan RPG, HeroQuest (2000, 2003), which Moon Design licensed in 2006.
Jeff Richard, formerly a member of the Seattle Farmers Collective gaming group, joined Moon Design as co-owner in 2008 and quickly began to produce much of its Gloranthan content. With his support, the company became the beating heart of Glorantha in 2013 when it gained the rights to the world of Glorantha and to RuneQuest itself.
Neil Robinson, another former member of the Seattle Farmers Collective, had been the organizer for Glorantha-Con V (1997) in Victoria, Canada, and the publisher of Enclosure (1997-1998), a Glorantha fanzine that was originally released to support that con. He joined Moon Design as its third member and became its president in 2015 after Meints moved over to become president of Chaosium.
Michael O’Brien was the newest member of the Moon Design team (and thus the new Chaosium team). He was another contributor to the classic Tales of the Reaching Moon fanzine and the editor of its “Australian” issues. He was also the author of Sun County (1992), the RuneQuest book that kicked off Avalon Hill’s resurrection of the line in the ’90s. He had further organized a few Glorantha-Cons (1996, 1998) of his own, and served as the editor for Questlines II (1997), the fundraiser book for Glorantha Con Down Under VI.
I grew up with Chaosium games, as did Jeff, MOB, and Neil, the other principle partners in Moon Design, and the managing team of Chaosium. This has been a 40 year journey for us since the time of our youth.Rick Meints, Interview, Juegos y Dados (February 2017), https://juegosydados.com/2017/02/07/interview-with-rick-meints-the-president-of-the-new-chaosium/
However, Chaosium’s four new officers were more than just fans. One of the reasons that Stafford and Petersen brought them in was that they were all experienced businessmen, with about a century of practical management expertise between them, knowledgeable in directing teams, creating budgets, and completing projects. It was the exact sort of business acumen that Chaosium needed to get back on its feet.
That business experience showed immediately when the new management team began a financial review of the entire company, including all of its products and product lines. This led them to shut down the monographs and BRP lines. The monographs just weren’t profitable enough (and also had problems with quality and with missing author agreements). The BRP line was slow-selling, and although those sales might have been sufficient to sustain the line in other circumstances, the new Chaosium needed every dollar for other priorities.
Chaosium’s new management also had plenty of new plans for the company. They intended to: print the books and fulfill the remaining shipments from the problematic Call of Cthulhu 7e Kickstarter; return to board game and card game production; resolve the accounts of the game and fiction departments; and, perhaps most importantly, publish a new RuneQuest game. It was an ambitious, far-reaching plan that could, if it succeeded, bring Chaosium back to life in a way that the half-measures implemented in the ’00s and early ’10s hadn’t.
Before any of the new Chaosium’s plans could come to fruition, one more change was needed: its home office. The cost of the company’s Hayward offices was too high, especially when Chaosium’s relatively low shipping volume permitted them to economically outsource the distribution of their games. After they eliminated the warehouse, it would make little sense for them to maintain just the office, particularly when Moon Design was a virtual company, with its four principals spread out across the world, from Australia and Germany to two different time zones in the United States. Chaosium sent their product to Brainerd, Minnesota, and their archives and records (and stuffed cockatrice) to the Pacific Northwest. Ann Arbor, Michigan became the new headquarters of a company that had made the Californian Bay Area its home for 40 years.
At this point, the new Chaosium chose not to renew Ben Monroe’s contract, as there was no longer an office to manage. This created a minor public-relation problem, but one that was almost inevitable given the scope of the changes now shaking the company. Monroe was offered the opportunity to work with Sandy Petersen creating new “Tales of Sandy Petersen” material, but he declined; ironically, Monroe has since begun work with Petersen Games, where he authored their Cthulhu Wars novel (2018?) and has since moved on to other creative projects for the company.
Resolving the Call of Cthulhu 7e Kickstarter was likely the most straight-forward project for the new Chaosium, but it was complicated and required significant investment from the new owners, since the funds from the Kickstarter were long gone. The presses finally began running for the print copies of Call of Cthulhu 7e in November 2015, and the cargo ships containing the books reached customers in the US, the UK, and Australia by April 2016. Chaosium also produced some of the stretch goals, with the final one, a leatherbound “Temple” edition of the game, going out in early 2018. They cancelled (and refunded) other stretch goals, in large part so that they didn’t have to heavily subsidize shipping for non-core items like bookmarks, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and dice.
The plans for a Chaosium board game revival were crucial but low-key. A thriving board game line could help get Chaosium back into a space where companies like Fantasy Flight Games and Steve Jackson Games had found notable success, but the new team didn’t rush in. They made their first announcement in October 2015 at Spiel ’15, in Essen, Germany. There, they revealed a deal with master Eurogame designer Reiner Knizia. His Khan of Khans (2017) would be Chaosium’s first strategy game since the popular but ultimately disastrous Mythos. His Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection (2018?) would soon follow.
James Lowder, an editor and author with decades of experience in the gaming industry including publications for both Green Knight and Chaosium, was brought in as a consulting editor to deal with the fiction department. He focused on Chaosium’s debt issues, which were largely concentrated in fiction payments, and also was tasked with improving the quality of Chaosium’s fiction and the treatment of its authors. Lowder immediately suspended new fiction publications and cancelled many pending projects, offering kill fees and reversions of rights. He then began tracking down old debts, sorting out electronic rights and licensing issues, and rebuilding a royalty reporting system.
Afterward, Lowder was able to offer new contracts for cancelled and new books alike, using a more author-friendly template that he’d developed for Madness on the Orient Express. When the company’s debts were largely closed out in March 2018, Lowder was ready to relaunch its fiction line as “a professional market, with pay rates and contracts in line with HWA and SFWA guidelines.” H.P. Lovecraft’s Dagon for Beginning Readers (2018), by R.J. Ivankovic, led the relaunch in late 2018, followed by an anthology of horror fiction set in religious communities throughout history, all penned by women authors, and a braided Mythos novel about the owners of one copy of the Necronomicon.
The New RuneQuest: 2015-2018
That left RuneQuest. At the time of Chaosum’s rebirth in late 2015, the RuneQuest brand had come under the control of Moon Design, who had licensed it to The Design Mechanism, a small-press company run by Pete Nash and Lawrence Whitaker, the authors of Mongoose Publishing’s RuneQuest II (2010). They’d then published their own RuneQuest 6 (2012).
With Moon Design merging into Chaosium, the RuneQuest game (and the Glorantha setting) would be coming home to Chaosium. This was an industry-shaking change, because it would be the first time this powerful fantasy roleplaying trinity had been united since Chaosium had licensed the game to Avalon Hill back in 1984 — thirty-one years previous. Even if the new Chaosium wasn’t quite the old Chaosium, it was composed of fans of the classic game who were being actively supported by Greg Stafford himself.
I’m really excited to see Glorantha and RuneQuest return to their proper home in Chaosium. The band is now back together, and we’re ready to rock on.Greg Stafford, Press Release (July 2015)
Fortunately for fans of the more recent iterations of RuneQuest, the new Chaosium planned to work with the Design Mechanism: they announced that Nash and Whitaker would be producing a new version of RuneQuest for Chaosium after their own license expired in July 2016.
That didn’t happen.
The most immediate reason for this change of plans was Chaosium’s “RuneQuest Classic” Kickstarter, intended to put Chaosium’s second-edition RuneQuest rules back into print (and also to produce digital releases for much of the classic RuneQuest 2 catalogue, some of it in “remastered” editions). The Kickstarter debuted on November 27, 2015 and met its funding goals in four and a half hours. By the end of the day they’d raised $60,000. By the time the Kickstarted closed on December 21st, Chaosium had grossed $206,819, making RuneQuest the eighth most-successful RPG Kickstarter of the year.
The extreme success of a Kickstarter for the classic RuneQuest 2 system only heightened Chaosium’s concerns with the RuneQuest 6 system. More than ever, they wanted a streamlined system and one that would maintain compatibly with Chaosium’s existing Gloranthan material — both needs that pointed more toward RuneQuest 2 than RuneQuest 6. They also weren’t sure that they could support RuneQuest 6’s combat special effects while simultaneously introducing other new mechanics to the game. This resulted in “incompatible creative visions” between the Design Mechanism team and the Chaosium team.
Chaosium announced in December 2015, at the Dragonmeet gaming convention in London, that they’d be producing the new RuneQuest themselves, without Nash and Whitaker. This created another minor PR kerfluffle, since some fans were invested in the Design Mechanism edition, but it would be largely forgotten by the time the game released. It would also be the new Chaosium’s last misstep of any note, after which the chaos of the transition would fade away. Meanwhile, after the Design Mechanism’s license for RuneQuest ended, they would republish their RuneQuest-influenced game as Mythras (2016).
Going forward, Chaosium’s goal for the new RuneQuest was fourfold: to set the game strongly in Glorantha; to maintain compatibility with RuneQuest 2 (whose catalogue was now being reprinted online); to bring runes into the game system as their one major expansion; and to improve character immersion in the setting. To help meet these goals, Chaosium brought in three of the company’s classic designers to help: Sandy Petersen, Ken Rolston, and Steve Perrin. They also scoured a variety of classic BRP-related systems, including not just RuneQuest 2, but also RuneQuest 6 itself, David Dunham’s Pendragon Pass (1997), and many others.
However, RuneQuest would not actually the first Glorantha game from the new Chaosium.
Moon Design had published HeroQuest: Glorantha (2015) as a PDF in April 2015, reuniting the 21st century Glorantha RPG with its core setting. They shipped the hardcopy book in June, shortly before the Chaosium/Moon Design merger. By the middle of 2016, Chaosium had fully integrated HeroQuest: Glorantha (and the rest of Moon Design’s catalog) into their own stock. That was the new Chaosium’s first Gloranthan RPG. Then, in February 2018, Chaosium released the electronic version of 13th Age Glorantha (2018), by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. This new setting for Pelgrane Press’ successful 13th Age (2013) game had been funded by Heinsoo’s own Kickstarter back in 2014, but by the time the book was ready to go, it made sense to release it through Chaosium, the once and future home of all things Glorantha. The print book was ready for release at Gen Con 2018. This was the new Chaosium’s second Gloranthan RPG.
RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha (2018) made its first appearance as a PDF in May 2018. Chaosium called it the “fourth Chaosium edition” and had also referred to it as “RuneQuest 2.5,” but it was most properly the seventh edition of one of the industry’s classic fantasy RPGs, following three Chaosium editions, two Mongoose editions, and one Design Mechanism edition. At the time of its publication, at least five smaller press systems existed that were based on Mongoose’s RuneQuest SRD: D101 Games’ OpenQuest (2009); Cakebread & Walton’s Renaissance (2011); Mongoose’s Legend (2011); the Design Mechanism’s Mythras (2016); and Alephtar’s Revolution d100 (2017). However, Chaosium has already shown their intent to support their classic version of RuneQuest: their Glorantha Bestiary (2018) followed the new edition of the rules by just two months. It was a strong basis for a new line.
RuneQuest is not the only classic game coming home to Chaosium: at Gen Con 2018, the company announced a deal to distribute Pendragon products for Nocturnal Media, though Nocturnal still remains in charge of the game under new line editor David Larkins.
The New Chaosium Future: 2018
When the history of the old Chaosium ended in 2015, the company had recovered from a near-fatal downturn, but it was existing in a massively weakened state, with all of its classic games gone except Call of Cthulhu and BRP, and those poorly supported for over a decade. The dependence on semi-professional monographs had removed the company from the public eye, and purely pragmatic licenses might have done more to weaken the company’s intellectual property than strengthen it. Chaosium’s board-room revolution allowed for an almost total regeneration of the company; bringing in new people to think in new ways about the company’s properties, objectives, and marketing was probably exactly what was needed to bring Chaosium back to the top ranks of roleplaying companies.
It’s too early to say for sure whether that will happen, but thus far the new Chaosium has been successful.
The company staffing has swelled. Rick Meints, Jeff Richard, Neil Robinson, and Michael O’Brien continue to provide the core of the company, with Robinson going full-time as the company’s COO. James Lowder has stepped up as executive editor of the fiction line. Lynne Hardy has joined Call of Cthulhu line editor Mike Mason as assistant line editor. Ian Cooper came in as the editor for HeroQuest and Jason Durall’s experience with BRP made him an obvious choice as line editor for RuneQuest. Susan O’Brien has become the line editor for Chaosium’s resurgent board game offerings. Lilian Cohen-Moore has joined as director of marketing and media. Finally, Greg Stafford and Sandy Petersen continue to offer creative support to the company.
Meanwhile, Chaosium has been managing about a dozen publications a year. For Call of Cthulhu that’s included the long-awaited Pulp Cthulhu (2016) as well as innovative settings such as the weird-west Down Darker Trails (2017), “Tales of Sandy Petersen” releases like Free RPG Day’s The Derelict (2016) and Petersen’s Abominations (2017), and classic updates such as the epic Masks of Nyarlathotep (2018). Moon Design’s own HeroQuest is also receiving new love at Chaosium with a paired sourcebook and mega-campaign: The Coming Storm (2017) and The Eleven Lights (2018).
The fan community seems to have responded well. Not only did Chaosium win the Silver Fans’ Choice Best Publisher at the ENnies in both 2017 and 2018, trailing only Wizards of the Coast, but they also picked up another 14 ENnies awards those two years, including Gold awards for numerous Call of Cthulhu books, for their RuneQuest Quickstart Rules and Adventure (2017), and for their Khan of Khans board game.
Going forward, Chaosium has a strong staff, proven production, and three popular roleplaying systems. Things are looking better for them than they have in decades.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #3 & #17 on RPGnet (the second article being an expansion of earlier update). It was written for the German edition of Evil Hat’s four-volume release, which was a sort of version 2.1 of the series.
Expanded Bibliography & Thanks
Appelcline, Shannon. 2015. “Greg Stafford, Chaosium”. The RPGnet Interview. RPGnet. www.rpg.net/columns/interview/interview54.phtml
Bone, Marcus D. 2012. “Whispers of a Magic World … An Interview with Ben Monroe”. StormbringerRPG.com. www.stormbringerrpg.com/docs/Whispers%20of%20a%20Magic%20World%20-%20Ben%20Monroe.pdf
Krank, Charlie. 2013. “Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition”. Kickstarter. www.kickstarter.com/projects/448333182/call-of-cthulhu-7th-edition
Krank, Charlie. 2012. “Horror on the Orient Express: Call of Cthulhu”. Kickstarter. www.kickstarter.com/projects/448333182/horror-on-the-orient-express-a-chaosium-publicatio
Krank, Charlie. 2004. Letter to Chaosium Writers and Artists. www.yog-sothoth.com/topic/2304-an-open-letter-to-chaosium/?p=30434
McLean, Meghan. 2013. Chaosium in Turkey. chaosiuminturkey.wordpress.com/
Meints, Rick. 2018. “2017: Chaosium’s Year in Review”. Chaosium Blog. https://www.chaosium.com/blog/2017-chaosiums-year-in-review
Monroe, Ben. 2015. “Re: The Great Old Ones have Returned [Chaosium]”. RPGnet. forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?757863-The-Great-Old-Ones-have-Returned-Chaosium-merged/page15&p;=19091741#post19091741
Paul of Cthulhu. 2015. “The Great Old Ones Return – Sandy Petersen Interview”. Yog-Sothoth. www.yog-sothoth.com/articles.html/_/main/the-great-old-ones-return-sandy-petersen-interview
Petersen, Sandy. 2013. “Cthulhu Wars”. Kickstarter. www.kickstarter.com/projects/1816687860/cthulhu-wars
Richard, Jeff. 2016-2018. “Designing the New RunQuest”. Chaosium Blog. https://www.chaosium.com/blog/
Stafford, Greg. 2015. “The Great Old Ones have returned!”. Kickstarter. www.kickstarter.com/projects/448333182/call-of-cthulhu-7th-edition/posts/1251694
Various. 2004. “An Open Letter to Chaosium”. Yog-Sothoth. www.yog-sothoth.com/topic/2304-an-open-letter-to-chaosium/
Jason Durall, James Lowder, Rick Meints, Ben Monroe, Michael O’Brien, Greg Stafford