I recently posted a Forgotten Texts review for Chris Pramas’ classic (and excellent) Dark Angels short story The Black Pearl. I also got in touch with Chris for a quick interview, talking about how he ended up writing for Black Library and giving his thoughts on the wider hobby. Let’s get straight into the interview…
The Black Pearl was your first Black Library story – what had you written before then?
CP: Most of my writing previous to the Inferno stories was for roleplaying games like Feng Shui, Underground, and Over the Edge. I had gotten my start as a RPG freelancer in 1993 and founded my first publishing company a couple of years later. This, incidentally, was how I met Marc Gascoigne. My company shared a booth at GenCon 1995 with Hogshead Publishing, which was publishing Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay at the time (and for whom I did some freelance writing). Marc had worked at Games Workshop in the 80s and then left for a good while. He had come over from England to help James Wallis run the Hogshead booth. I showed up the first day wearing a Rudimentary Peni t-shirt. They were an 80s British punk band we both loved, so we hit it off right away.
Not long after I met Marc, he went back to work for Games Workshop to start up Black Library. I heard about Inferno Magazine from him and decided to try pitching some stories. The fact that I knew the properties well and had written for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay before were big pluses in my favor.
The fiction I wrote for Games Workshop happened right at the birth of Black Library. There had been a previous line of Warhammer fiction that had faded away and Black Library was attempting (quite successfully as it turned out!) to establish a new one. This began with Inferno and that was where my three stories (one fantasy, two 40K) first appeared in issues 2, 4, and 6. Since then they’ve been collected in several books of short stories.
Can you remember if you had a specific brief for The Black Pearl, or did you did you have the freedom to pick your own subject? If so, why the Dark Angels?
CP: When Inferno was starting up, you just pitched story ideas to Black Library’s founders, Marc Gascoigne and Andy Jones. You could propose just about anything in the Warhammer and 40K universes. At the time the 2nd edition Codex Angels of Death had recently come out and I was intrigued by the Dark Angels and the idea of the black pearls in particular. I liked that the Dark Angels played up the Space Marines as something like the Knights Templar and that they had a secret sin that drove them to seek redemption.
Can you remember much about writing this story?
CP: What I most remember are the circumstances. I had lived in New York City for nine years but left when I started my first RPG company. I moved back to the Boston area, where I grew up, because that’s where my two partners lived. We rented an apartment in Somerville and tried to get the company off the ground. We certainly couldn’t pay ourselves so we all had day jobs. I had worked in coffee for the previous several years and I didn’t want to do that again. I thus ended up doing soul crushing temp work for a while before getting an office assistant type job at Harvard University of all places. I didn’t have a lot friends there because I had been in NYC so long and never found a regular game group. The office work was shitty and our start-up did not go well. It was a pretty depressing time all in all, and it was in that environment that I wrote my stories for Black Library. Perhaps it helped me get into the proper grim mindset.
After a year of that, I moved to Seattle, which turned out to be a smart play. I’ve been here since 1997. I started my second game company, Green Ronin Publishing, in 2000 and that went much better than the first. We are still thriving 17 years later.
How familiar were you with 40k and its style back then? Were you a gamer?
CP: Oh quite familiar, which is how I landed the gig in the first place. I started playing hobby games in 1979 when I was 10 years old. In college my group became hardcore devotees of the Warhammer Fantasy RPG and minis game. I started playing Warhammer Fantasy Battle right towards the end of its 2nd edition and of course picked up Rogue Trader when it came out. I remember playing my first game of 40K in the dining hall of my college dorm (Eldar vs. Space Marines) and using salt and pepper shakers as terrain! Now that I think about it, 2017 is my 30th year of Warhammer gaming.
What influences do you think you drew from when writing these stories?
CP: My biggest influences growing up were J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Fritz Leiber as far as fiction goes. Of those, I think the Moorcock influence is the biggest on these stories, as he was clearly a major pillar of the Warhammer style. Lovecraft was a bit of one as well, particularly on the story Into the Maelstrom. And it wouldn’t be me without real world history getting in there. I’m a huge history nerd and that really informs everything I do.
Since writing these Black Library stories you’ve worked on a lot of roleplaying games, including Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and 40k Dark Heresy. How do you feel the Games Workshop-branded roleplaying games stand up alongside other names like D&D?
CP: My company, Green Ronin, was the RPG design house for Games Workshop when they revived roleplaying there under the Black Industries imprint. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 2nd Edition was my design and I remain proud of it and the support material Green Ronin and Black Industries produced. What Warhammer roleplaying has often lacked is consistency though. D&D, with one brief break at the end of TSR’s lifespan, has been continually published and supported since 1974. Warhammer RPGs are on and off again, sometimes produced by Games Workshop, sometimes by outside partners, and sometimes by nobody for years at a stretch. Now Fantasy Flight, who had the license for some years, have lost it and it seems another company may be picking it up. It’s harder to maintain a fanbase with such instability.
How do you feel settings like 40k have changed since you wrote these early stories?
CP: Well they added the Tau for one thing, and turned Necrons from a one off White Dwarf article that was largely an excuse for Terminator jokes into a full and interesting faction. The biggest difference must be the success of Black Library itself though. There are now a huge number of novels that really delve into a setting in a way we hadn’t seen before. The Horus Heresy series alone is 41 books and counting! This was something that was a few paragraphs of lore and a lot of inference back in the day and it may well be 80 books before they finish telling the story. That was simply inconceivable back then.
Forge World has also been doing great work in exploring the setting. Look at the two Badab War books they did. Alan Bligh was able to take a bunch of Space Marine chapters that had been little more than names and detail them in a way that was both different and interesting. Even the Space Sharks!
Do you ever fancy going back and writing some more stories set in the 41st millennium?
CP: Yes, I’d like to do that some time, particularly if I got to play in the Horus Heresy era. I continue to be an active 40K player, so I certainly have ideas. I’m just also really busy running Green Ronin, so my time for freelance work is limited. I did several books for Osprey Publishing (Orc Warfare, Dwarf Warfare, and the forthcoming Elf Warfare) and it was challenging to fit them into my schedule.
Do you get much feedback from Black Library fans on these stories, these days?
CP: Only occasionally. The early Inferno work has really been eclipsed (and rightly so) by Black Library all-stars like Dan Abnett, Graham McNeill, and Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
I’d like to thank Chris for taking the time to chat about this story; I’m sure you’ll agree it’s great to hear from him about the early days of Black Library! If this and my review have piqued your interest in reading The Black Pearl then please do check it out, either in one of the old anthologies if you’ve got one, or by picking up the e-short on the Black Library website.
In the meantime, check out the website of Chris’ company Green Ronin to take a look at all the awesome roleplaying games they publish: http://greenronin.com