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RPG History: Glossy Pages and Big Games – The Story of Modiphius
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RPG History: Glossy Pages and Big Games – The Story of Modiphius

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To understand roleplaying games today, you have to understand what they were in the 1990s. That decade marked the commercial high water mark of the pen and paper roleplaying game company. The friendly local gaming store was flourishing. TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, had found a new groove in the wake of Gary Gygax’s departure as a producer of wild, interesting, copious amounts of setting material. White Wolf was redefining what roleplaying games could be in terms of content and production values with its World of Darkness and Ars Magica lines. A host of games were in hobby shops and bookstores–Torg, Shadowrun, Legend of Five Rings–creating a vast, endless shelf of imaginary worlds.

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You could, with all the caveats about the ways gaming culture could be and often was a series of systems closed to the black, brown, gay, and female, make a living at making them. There were so many games studios you could just pick one. Send a pitch, as easily as you pitch a new media property today, or walk in and get a salaried job with benefits. You wouldn’t be rich, but you could do alright. Or you could open a local store, because every city of even moderate size could support one. My local was Cosmic Castle, a legendary shop in Greensboro, but there were two in Chapel Hill, two in Winston-Salem, or three in Raleigh.

Then it all stopped. The Magic: the Gathering boom caused a glut of collectible card games which reconfigured store shelves and distribution practices; when it slowed, stores were stuck with stock they couldn’t move even at a discount. The flood of supplements and splatbooks which had once looked like a joyous infinity transformed into a weight without limit for the publishers and distributors. TSR went under, selling Dungeons & Dragons to Wizards of the Coast, who released the D20 system for free, causing a second bubble which caused a second, worse collapse in the 00s. CCP, publishers of EVE Online, eventually bought White Wolf, who quietly stopped publishing books. Companies shuttered, what had been a small but vibrant industry contracted, and RPGs became the domain of self-published dreamers — a worthy artistic endeavor, but one ruled by the dreaded late capitalist demands of “hustle” if you want to eat.

That was the 1990s, the highest of highs followed by the start of a long slide into cultural and market irrelevancy which has only just begun to dissipate. Even today, only a handful of RPG studios offer the dream of the 90s: a living wage for employees and a steady, robust schedule of supplements for multiple game lines. There are the big players — Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, and Fantasy Flight Games, and a handful of smaller yet strong studios, like Monte Cook Games and Chaosium. That’s about it.

What the Heck is a Modiphius?

Which is why when I stumbled across Modiphius Entertainment several years ago, I was stunned.  The sheer volume is staggering, for one, taking me back to those old shelves at Cosmic Castle in my mind’s eye. But the type of games, the names on display, beggar belief. A company which seemingly came out of nowhere not long ago now publishes game licenses for Star Trek, Conan, Fallout (yes, that Fallout), John Carter, and Thunderbirds. It translates and produces staggeringly good Swedish games in Mutant Year Zero and Tales From the Loop.

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When I found this strange, ambitious publisher, I immediately wanted to know more. Either this was the product of bored, wildly rich minor nobility in the English countryside or the brainchild of the shrewdest negotiator in roleplaying games today. Licensed games die, quickly and often; as just one example, the Star Wars license has been born and reborn in several forms over the decades. Here was a company, seemingly conjured from thin air in 2012, partying like it’s 1993.

The ability to acquire all those licenses owes a lot to Chris Birch, Modiphius’ founder. His story is a wild one: he started in music management, helping shepherd the careers of early 90s electronic artists like Lords of Acid, before moving into video game fashion, of all things, as founder of Joystick Junkies, a now-defunct but once extremely popular maker of game-related clothing. Having to deal with a constant flood of licensing negotiations with companies like Atari and Midway paved the way for Birch’s unlikely but successful turn as a roleplaying game publisher.

“People ask me, because I come from a fashion background, how on earth did you do so much stuff? It’s like, well, for fashion, you have to do four collections a year with all kinds of merchandise,” explains Birch. “And they’re not as complicated as books, but you have to do lots of production under pressure to hit deadlines. So when I came into this business, it was quite easy in comparison. The complicated thing is managing all the people involved in each book!”

Birch ended up working with Cubicle 7 on a lark, after suggesting that a game based on the Starblazer comic would be cool. It did well, and he found himself using his skill at navigating the murky, demanding world of corporate intellectual property licenses in order to snag the publisher the Doctor Who license.

Throughout my discussion with Birch, a sense of creative boredom came across. He did music management until he made t-shirts, and when he got bored with that, he decided to write on the side. Kickstarter offered something which tickled his fancy: the possibility of funding new games with marketing, which is something he clearly enjoys. Maybe even more, there was the possibility of leaving the fashion grind behind altogether.

“Just at the point I was really bored of selling t-shirts, Kickstarter came along, and I thought you know what, I loved like Sgt. Rock and WWII comics as a kid, and I imagined an Antarctica packed with Nazis and ancient gods after reading the Mountains of Madness book for Call of Cthulhu,” says Birch. “Achtung! Cthulhu was born, which was our first baby, and we did a Kickstarter for it, thinking, well, this will be a fun thing for me and my wife to do. And it was a spectacular success, something like 177 grand, so that funded like 12 books, miniatures, dice, the whole thing.”

From there, the publisher grew from a two-person shop consisting of Birch and his wife Rita operating out of a basement flat to one with a permanent staff and a legion of games, most of which were negotiated for with rights-holders which dwarf Modiphius’ “successful for the roleplaying game industry” levels of success. Not just navigating the licenses but treating the worlds it’s temporarily in charge of is something Modiphius takes seriously.

Working

“You’ve gotta be professional with licenses and you have to know what the holders want to hear,” says Birch. “They want to hear that you know what you’re doing, that you’ll take it seriously, that you have the money to fund it, and some of them are harder to deal with than others. Like the John Carter estate are amazing to work with. The Conan and Mutant Chronicles people, they’re behind everything we’re doing, partly because they’re impressed that we hired some of the leading Conan experts in the world to oversee what we’re doing. We have one of the Simon & Schuster editors looking over our Star Trek stuff. We try to make sure any mistakes are caught, so we get mostly just spelling mistakes back from the license holders, and that’s it. We’ve had hardly anything where they’ve said we don’t like this, take it out.”

That attention to detail is apparent in Modiphius’ games. A quick perusal of Shield of Tomorrow, Geek & Sundry’s own Star Trek Adventures RPG show, reveals a game deeply in love with its source material, one which pulls the character into the whorl of dramatic action Star Trek is known for. Star Trek Adventures feels like Star Trek, and you can see that in the actual play of the Shield of Tomorrow crew. Plus, the book is gorgeous; Birch says he made a promise that all the books Modiphius publishes will be full color, preferably on gloss pages, something which a lot of roleplaying publishers don’t do.

Back to the Future

It is absolutely valid to say that the RPG industry shouldn’t need this level of expertise or amount of capital thrown to production values to succeed in. All of that is true, just as it’s true that there are many RPG writers out there who have done well on their own terms in the world of self-publishing. But there’s something about the glossy books, known quantities, and scale of the Modiphius project which points to a way forward rooted in what we left behind. An office. A fair wage. Defined hours.

Birch states that Modiphius pays industry standard for freelancers and is committed to a fair wage for staff, as well as making certain they’re paid for all of the off-hour work like answering emails and attending meetings when disaster strikes. Regular pay raises commiserate with Modiphius’ growth are also part of the staff package. This was the bit, in the end, which was most interesting to me. I love Star Trek and Mutant Year Zero is one of the best games of the decade, but hearing a commitment to doing this correctly and fairly, in an industry which seems to stiff its workers even in the rare event that people make money, was heartening.

Testing

As the roleplaying game industry sheds the 00s and early 10s doldrums, the tangible success of Modiphius feels like a melange of where the industry has recently been: a side gig for people in other fields offering a little extra money and a lot of extra work, noticeable small success out of a bedroom office, and finally a sustainable, growing publisher finding purchase online and in gaming stores all over the world. And you won’t get rich, any more than you did in the 90s, but you might find a steady job.

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Seemingly as proof of Modiphius’ links to the gaming industry’s past, the reconstituted White Wolf Publishing partnered with the company to produce the fifth edition of Vampire: The Masquerade. The new edition goes back to the days before the classic game’s end of the world storyline. It instead tries to rekindle the 1990s aesthetic of Ventrue and Brujah clashes over a late-era Sisters of Mercy soundtrack. When the news dropped that Vampire was being distributed by Modiphius, well after this interview was over, it simply felt right. Of course, Modiphius was involved. Everything old is new again, and nothing felt like more of a combination of comfortingly old and blindingly new than the full throttle games publisher with the fair wages and Lords of Acid origin story.

“If you’re going to do it,” Birch says with a laugh. “Let’s do it properly.”

What RPG games do you remember from the turn of the millennium? Tell us in the comments below!

Image Credits: Modiphius,  White Wolf Entertainment

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