There can be no doubt that Greg Stafford was one of the giants of the roleplaying industry. His story is writ large in Designers & Dragons, particularly in the histories of Chaosium and Issaries, but also in the tales of companies that he directly impacted such as Avalon Hill, Mongoose Publishing, and White Wolf, and beyond that in the stories of the designers and creators that he influenced, which is … just about everyone else.
Though his story can be found throughout Designers & Dragons, on the sad event of his passing, I wanted to tell it in one place, and so recall the impact he’s had on all of us who have picked up dice and character sheet and played our games of fantastic worlds.
Chaosium & Glorantha: 1966-1989
Greg began dreaming of his mythic world of Glorantha at Beloit College in southern Wisconsin in 1966. There he wrote the first sword & sorcery stories of a prince named Snodal. He joined the gaming industry in 1975 when he released his wargame White Bear and Red Moon (1975) through his brand-new gaming company Chaosium. Greg called White Bear and Red Moon a “do-it-yourself” novel set in the world of Glorantha. Back in a day when settings were largely unknown, Greg dedicated a considerable portion of the rulebook to detailing the strange peoples of Dragon Pass. White Bear and Red Moon wasn’t a roleplaying game, but it was one of the most story-oriented board games that the world had yet seen.
Greg continued to explore Glorantha in the next few years through other board games like Nomad Gods (1977) and through the pages of his fanzine, Wyrm’s Footnotes (1976-1982+). However, Glorantha’s biggest expansion came when Chaosium published Steve Perrin’s RuneQuest (1978), a roleplaying game set in that world. If Greg wanted White Bear and Red Moon to be a do-it-yourself novel, that idea found its fulfillment in a fantasy roleplaying game where hundreds of thousands of players would each create their own Gloranthan stories in the decades to come.
RuneQuest also allowed Greg to dramatically expand the story of Glorantha, revealing more of its intricacies to the general public. His books Cults of Prax (1979) and Cults of Terror (1981) were particularly notable because they detailed the myths and legends that underlay the world of Glorantha. Though other gaming worlds like Greyhawk and Tékumel were starting to be sketched out in these same days, Glorantha stood out as a unique and well-detailed setting where the wars and other conflicts of the modern-day intermixed freely with the myths of the past, where the age of legends lay just a step sideways from the age of mortals. It made religion, history, and myth crucial to its setting, in a way unlike anything else in the roleplaying industry.
Chaosium continued to publish RuneQuest through 1983, but then licensed gaming rights to the RPG to Avalon Hill, along with permission to publish Glorantha content with approval. At the time, Avalon Hill was just entering the roleplaying field and was interested in making RuneQuest their “cadillac” game. Greg saw it as an opportunity to bring RuneQuest to a larger audience.
Despite these best intentions, the deal would end up being disastrous for Chaosium, for RuneQuest, and for Glorantha. Chaosium supported the game at its new publisher for five years before abandoning it in 1989. Though Ken Rolston later resurrected the game for the RuneQuest Renaissance, which began in 1992, Greg had very little involvement.
Because by then he was on to other things.
Chaosium & A Multitude of Games: 1981-1998
Greg Stafford’s greatness didn’t come solely from his unparalleled creative vision, but also from his nurturing and supportive character, which led him to help many others to realize their own creativity. He worked with Steve Perrin to produce RuneQuest, and that was typical of his willingness to let his fellows share in the development of his own world of Glorantha. But, he also freely used the resources that he’d gathered at Chaosium to make real the dreams of others, publishing roleplaying games such as Ken St. Andre’s Stormbringer (1981), Sandy Petersen’s Call of Cthulhu (1981), and Steve Perrin’s Superworld (1983).
However, the greatest games that Chaosium released in the ’80s may well have been Greg Stafford’s own designs, a pair of games descended from the Matter of Britain that foreshadowed the indie RPG movement, a decade and a half before it appeared.
King Arthur Pendragon (1985) is often considered Greg’s magnum opus. Though it was released during a time when many game systems were going generic, it took the opposite tack: it was a game system that magnificently embodied a very specific style of play, the Arthurian Romance. Pendragon also innovated the gaming field by embedding mental characteristics in its game system: personality traits tested the moral values of characters while passions revealed their madnesses. Pendragon also departed from the roleplaying norm in one other way: it envisioned a campaign that spanned decades, where characters would in time be replaced by their children and grandchildren as Camelot rose and fell. Put all of that together and you have a game that makes the elements of Arthurian Romance manifest through its knightly quests, its moral conflicts, its stalwart fanaticism, and its generational storytelling. It was the game that launched a thousand indie ships, all of them convinced that system matters.
Prince Valiant (1989) marked Greg’s return to the Arthurian mythos by way of Hal Foster’s comic strip. In contrast to Pendragon it presented a tremendously simplified game system, learnable with just a single page of rules. However, like Pendragon its focus was on storytelling. Its adventures (“episodes”) were carefully structured to mirror the free-flowing scenes of the comic strip, and players were encouraged to take control of individual scenes from the “chief storytelling”, creating a more collaborative game. The mental traits of Pendragon also recurred here, now as a source of potential experience if they were played well.
Another creative work from this period is less known: Greg supported Sandy Petersen and Lynn Willis in the creation of Ghostbusters (1986) for West End Games. It was another simple game whose systems nicely matched the tone and feel of its source material and another game that purposefully encouraged roleplaying and storytelling. Though there wasn’t as much indie foreshadowing in this product, there were very strong mechanics. In particular, it contained one of the industry’s first dice-pool skill systems, the foundation for what would be West End’s long-lived d6 system.
(John Wick would later talk about Greg’s design ingenuity in his “Stafford rule”, which says: “If you believe you’ve come up with a clever mechanic, Greg Stafford already did it.”)
Unfortunately Greg’s company, Chaosium, didn’t always enjoy the same strength as his creative masterpieces. Though it was a mid-sized roleplaying with as many as a dozen full-time employees throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, it suffered multiple downturns over the years. One occurred in the late ’80s following the licensing of RuneQuest to Avalon Hill, and another came in the late ’90s when the collectible-card game market crashed. This second downturn cost Chaosium Greg’s King Arthur Pendragon game, because it had been offered as a surety for a loan that Chaosium defaulted on … and it also cost Chaosium Greg Stafford. In 1998, he decided that he would prefer to fulfill his creative pursuits away from the company he’d founded and its ups and downs.
King of Sartar & Issaries: 1992-2004
Greg’s change of heart over Chaosium came in large part due to a renewed interest in Glorantha, which had been growing over the previous several years. Though Greg had withdrawn from working on Glorantha as a roleplaying property in 1989, he was still able to use his world in other ways, so he decided to write a Gloranthan novel.
King of Sartar (1992) was released into a roleplaying industry that had already been publishing gaming fiction for about a decade, but like so much of Greg’s creative work, it was wholly original and innovative. That’s because it wasn’t a simple fantasy novel but instead was a collection of “five ancient manuscripts”. The core story of King of Sartar was about the Hero Wars, a world-shaking event in Glorantha’s near future that had been hinted at throughout various RuneQuest publications. But, Greg didn’t make understanding that story easy. Instead, he presented documents that were contradictory, misleading, and sometimes puzzling. They forced the readers to think, creating a great puzzle that would be discussed by fans for years.
And, there were fans. The strength of Greg’s vision for Glorantha was already being proven by the outpouring of creative support from the fan community, helping Glorantha through the terrible ’90s when its roleplaying publication was minimal. The Reaching Moon Megacorp led by David Hall, Kevin Jacklin, Nick Brooke, Rick Meints, and Michael O’Brien and its Tales of the Reaching Moon fanzine (1989-2002) were the heart of fan publication. The team also organized several RuneQuest conventions, beginning with Convulsion of a Trillion Tentacles (1992). However, several American and Australian conventions also appeared, beginning with RuneQuestCon (1994), and the international community published numerous other Gloranthan ‘zines, such as The Book of Drastic Resolutions (1995-1998), Codex (1994-1995), New Lolon Gospel (1995-1996), and RQ Adventures (1993-1998).
This was the rich environment into which Greg released King of Sartar. It was also a community that Greg was able to nurture and grow. He did so by publishing even more Gloranthan myths and lores as a series of “pre-finished works”, beginning with The Glorious ReAscent of Yelm (1994). These booklets were printed cheaply at local copy shop and sold direct, not released into gaming stores. Nonetheless, they kept the flame alive for true fans of the game. By the time that Greg published The Book of Heortling Mythology (2010), the final book in what was now called The Stafford Library, there was no doubt that he’d created a stronger and more diverse mythology for his world than anything else in the roleplaying industry … and perhaps than any other fantasy world ever created.
But Greg was also ready for Glorantha to return to the world of roleplaying. In 1997, shortly before he left Chaosium, he pulled all rights to his fantasy world from Avalon Hill and took then with them when he left.
There are certainly second acts in the roleplaying industry, and Greg’s second act was a new company that he formed called Issaries; as with Chaosium twenty years before he created it to publish Gloranthan games. Within a few years, he’d released a new game called Hero Wars (2000), later renamed HeroQuest (2003), designed by Robin D. Laws.
Another of Greg’s innovations in the roleplaying industry is the imagination of an epic scope that other games have only rarely attempted. He envisioned a world where heroes could rise up to walk in the footsteps of gods … but RuneQuest had never quite managed to make that vision concrete. In Hero Wars, Greg and Robin were finally able to do so, creating a game where players could move from being bronze-age barbarians to questers upon the Hero Plane.
Beyond that, Robin’s Hero Wars was another game that foreshadowed the industry’s indie revolution, now just on the cusp of existence. Hero Wars played with ideas like resource-managed combat and freeform attributes, in large part due to Robin’s original vision. It was another example of Greg enabling other designers to create their best, even when contributing to his beloved world of Glorantha.
Of course the ’00s, when d20 modules filled gaming stores to overflowing, was an awful time to publish an innovative game set in one of the gaming industry’s best-realized worlds. Issaries never supported more than a single full-time employee and lasted only a few years. In 2004, Greg shut it down and moved from the expensive San Francisco Bay Area to the cheaper lands of Mexico, where he’d spend a year teaching English before moving to Northern California.
Moon Design & The Return: 2005-2018
Being freed of the demands of running a company might have been the best thing for Greg’s creativity. Though he’d never return to the innovative heights of the ’80s, which saw the publication of considerable Gloranthan lore, King Arthur Pendragon, and Prince Valiant, Greg was able to continue to develop all of his best-loved properties by working with other companies in the late ’00s and the ’10s.
Greg had managed to recover the rights to RuneQuest thanks to the dissolution of Avalon Hill, and he licensed that out with a Gloranthan gaming license to Mongoose, who produced numerous books over the next several years (2006-2011), but the line had minimal support from Greg himself.
Greg was doing more personal work for White Wolf, who had ended up with the rights to Pendragon. Not only did he collaborate with them to produce a new fifth edition of King Arthur Pendragon (2005), which returned the game to its roots by being a great game just about knights and their knightly adventures, but he also finally finished The Great Pendragon Campaign (2006). This 429-page book was one that Greg had imagined for twenty years. It detailed the entire span of the Matter of Britain, from the beginning of Uther’s rise to power in 485 AD to the final stories of the knights of the Round Table in 566 AD. In the modern day we talk about adventure paths that can span an entire D&D campaign, though 40 or 60 weeks of play, but there is nothing else like The Great Pendragon Campaign and its depiction of eighty years of time. The industry recognized this, and Greg was confered the most prestigious award in gaming, the Diana Jones Award, for this accomplishment.
Later, after Pendragon rights transferred once more, Greg was able to work with Stewart Wieck’s Nocturnal Media to continue to revise the Pendragon rules and to release numerous small-press supplements for the game (2011+). This year, Greg appointed David Larkins to take over as the game’s creative director, ensuring its future.
Nocturnal also reprinted Greg’s Prince Valiant (2018), along with a new Episode Book (2018) that contained short scenarios from many notables in the industry, including Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, Kenneth Hite, Robin Laws, James Lowder, Chris Pramas, and Mark Rein•Hagen. It’s easy to remember Greg for his brilliant creativity, but he also had a very notable influence on many game designers who came after him, which made them in turn eager to support his endeavors.
However, Greg’s most extensive work in his later days was probably with Moon Design Publications, Rick Meints’ spin-off of the Reaching Moon Megacorp. In the early ’00s, Moon Design was publishing compilations of classic RuneQuest material under license from Greg, but after his return from Mexico, that changed. They began publishing HeroQuest books in 2006 and at the same time took over the publication of Greg’s Stafford Library of myths and stories. The company really came alive as the new heart of Glorantha when Jeff Richard came on board in 2008. Thanks to Greg’s generous attitude toward collaboration, the two were able to work together to produce expansive new works detailing Glorantha, beginning with Sartar (2009) and the Sartar Companion (2010).
By 2013, Greg clearly knew that he’d found the writers who could carry on the story of his evocative world, because he sold then the rights to Glorantha that August. A year later, Moon Design, working with Greg, published the two-volume Guide to Glorantha (2014), 800 pages (and twelve pounds) of Glorantha lore, showing the world one more time the depths of Greg’s creation. In 2015, the Guide won Greg a second Diana Jones Award; but, it wasn’t just a recognition of those two dense volumes, it was an appreciation of Greg’s decades of work creating his deep and detailed world.
With Greg’s masterpieces of Glorantha and Pendragon both in safe hands, there was just one niggling loose end: Chaosium, which had continued to struggle along throughout the ’00s and had entered a new Kickstarter-created downturn in the ’10s. In 2015, Greg took back control of Chaosium. In doing so, he rescued the remaining games that he’d midwifed decades before, most notably Call of Cthulhu. He then brought the Moon Design team in as part of the new ownership group. They brought RuneQuest and Glorantha with them, reuniting several of Greg’s greatest creations. Greg was able to witness and participate in a new and greater Renaissance of Glorantha, culminating in the publication of RuneQuest Glorantha (2018) this summer.
Greg was a master storyteller and designer, a creative pioneer, and our industry’s most charismatic bard. But, he was also a shaman and visionary. He passed on in his sweat lodge, on October 10, 2018.
My condolences to his wife Suzanne, to his family, to his friends, to the many, many who he influenced, and to his co-workers at Chaosium.
If Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson where the fathers of the roleplaying industry, if Dave Wesely and Jeff Perren were its grandparents, then Greg Stafford was the quirky uncle, never willing to go the way of the common man, but always encouraging and supportive of his many nieces and nephews: we, who continue the roleplaying industry, which is now lesser for his absence.
There’s no doubt that Greg belongs in a list of the ten most important and innovative people in the roleplaying industry. This author would personally put him in the top three: he was a mentor and friend.
This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #21 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.