Thursday, 1 September 2016

Star Dad interview - Graham McNeill

Following on from our previous (and inaugural) Star Dad interview, today we bring you another interview with another Star Dad, Graham McNeill. We know him as the author of Vengeful Spirit, Fulgrim and my personal favourite, Angel Exterminatus, among many other titles, but here he is in his own words as a hobbying dad.

Image result for Graham McNeill

We know you principally as an author of literature based in and around the worlds of Warhammer 40k and the Horus Heresy. Did you play these games before you started writing about them?

GM: I certainly did. I’ve been a gamer for as long as I can remember, making up board games based on characters from the pages of 2000AD. I made a Rogue Trooper board game using Cluedo-type mechanics, where you had to find clues to where the Traitor General would be and then go in to assassinate him. Then I made a Robo Hunter card game that was all about figuring out what kind of robot you were up against, finding its weakness and then bringing it in for a bounty - while the other players were doing the same thing. All great, creative fun and it indulged my nascent hobby itch by trying to find figures that closely matched the characters (remember this was back in the early 80s!) and making a board, drawing art for it, making counters and new dice - and then writing the rules for them. I was also halfway through rules for a Judge Dredd role-playing system when GW went and made some...sigh.

My route into wargaming was via the Fighting Fantasy books, which I adored (and am now playing with my son, Evan) and which developed into actual role-playing games - principally AD&D and WFRP. I’ve always been a GM more than a player, so when the campaigns I ran got grander in scope, I wanted to have the player characters involved in large scale battles, but, of course, most RPG systems aren’t built for that. So I got the AD&D Battlesystem and used that for a while before I eventually bought the 3rd Edition Warhammer rules - the orange hardback - and fell in love with the Old World, the rules, the miniatures, etc. I became a regular at the Glasgow GW store, so immediately picked up Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader when it came out. And that was pretty much every weekend sorted until 2000, when I joined the Design Studio as one of the Staff Writers...

Did you spend a lot of time hobbying before you had kids?
GM: I certainly did, yeah. Way too much time, according to my parents, but I think by now they might just permit me a last laugh on that one. I played RPGs every Friday, wargamed on a Saturday and wrote rules for new games, new stories and continuations of the story for our ongoing tabletop gaming campaign on Sunday. Ah, the heady days where your weekends were your own. Over the years as various distractions of girls, the pub and university intruded into this hobby nirvana, the consistency in my gaming schedule dropped off some, though with being in the Design Studio it was still easy to get some toy soldier action on the go. And since 2000 I’ve had a regular RPG group going that met every Wednesday without fail, and which I only ceased playing with when I left the country to come to the US.

What have been the biggest changes to your hobby time since they came along?

GM: For the first few years, it didn’t affect it too much. Since leaving the Design Studio in 2006, my tabletop gaming had waned somewhat, but the Wednesday gamers were still going strong. We played every week, 90% of the time it was Cthulhu, AD&D, WFRP or Serenity we played, and the other 10% was boardames if enough of the regular crew couldn’t make it. It was hard to muster the energy to paint and do hobby stuff when I was so tired - as the disrupted sleep and so on took its toll on both of us. When the kids started getting a bit older (they’re now 5 and 7) I started taking them to Warhammer World in Nottingham on the weekends, and they loved it. So that brought a bit of hobby back as I explained what things were and what these people were doing gathered around the gaming tables.

How do you find the time to do the day job, look after the family and still get a bit of hobby time in?

GM: When I still lived in the UK, it wasn’t too bad. I worked freelance, so I was always able to take the kids to school and nursery, and be home at a sensible time to spend the evening with them before they went to bed. Routine is king when it comes to kids, and also adults who work freelance, it turns out. I found that if I rigorously timetabled my days then it became much easier to find the spaces where I could hobby without sacrificing time with my wife and family. Nowadays, it’s a bit harder, given that my regular gaming group live on a different continent, but given that I work for a video games company, there’s plenty of like-minded folk here and the opportunities for gaming are multiplying.

Do your kids get involved with the hobby? Did you encourage them to? If so, what’s the best thing about their involvement from your point of view?

GM: I encouraged it only by opening the door and showing them what lay within. I let them choose whether to step through or not. But when you’re five years old and you see a live size Lurtz and Space Marine, models of dragons and monsters and feel the shared joy and enthusiasm everyone in the hall has for the hobby, the people and the games, it’s hard not to be won over. Evan and I have played many games here and there (stripped down affairs where everything’s a win on 4+ and you move as many ‘units’ forward as the dice show etc.) and he really enjoyed it. It was hard not to get all rulesly on him (same with watching the dog’s dinner of his first paint jobs…) but I wanted to instil the love of the hobby and its imagery without crushing him with how he that wasn’t in the rules or how he wasn’t applying the colors in the correct Codex-approved pattern. It’s great to see how much they love the models and are into the background, as both my son and daughter, Amber, ask all sorts of interesting questions about the lore and how and why things work. So it’s great to feel like I’m doing my bit to keep the hobby going into the next generation. Seeing their imaginations expand into realms beyond talking cars and diggers is an amazing thing to watch.

Why do you think we and our kids still love traditional wargames and board games, considering the ever increasing popularity of electronic games? It’s not like 40k is ‘pick up and play’ when you have to buy, assemble and paint the miniatures before you can even play a game…

GM: I think the things you mention as barriers are the things that, to me, are what make such games the long-lasting love affairs they are. Having decided what army you want, reading the codex/army book, buying the models and then painting them, you’re already heavily invested in the process. There’s a tactile feeling you get from moving a piece around a board or across a table that no video game yet has been able to replicate. And there’s the social aspect of gaming that video games - no matter how much they tout their multiplayer aspect - can’t match. You’re sitting across a table from your fellow player(s), you’re talking to them, laughing with them, arguing the toss with them over a rule interpretation or model positioning, and celebrating after with a pint. Each game gets you stories and memories that will live forever. I have tales from every kind of gaming that still make me chuckle or rage at; memories I can share and know are remembered by my fellow players. I haven’t had a single incident playing any kind of multiplayer game on a console that’s even come close to that.

Have you ever been in a funny situation having to explain something from a sci-fi universe to your kids? (for example my two-year old asked me what every single tiny thing was on an imperial orbital array tower at Warhammer World the other week, and I just found myself making up all sorts of descriptions... I thought it was funny anyway).

GM: Mostly it’s been trying to explain Slaaneshi daemons to a six year old without getting red in the face. I’ve not had any incidents that are too strange, though there’s been moments when I’ve started explaining one thing and then realised that, for it to make sense, I need to go back and explain something else. I’ve always just explained things enough to get them on board with the idea of good guy/bad guy, the nuances will come out when they’re older.

As part of the Horus Heresy series you have written about a number of different legions and their Primarchs. We are currently running a Primarch Deathmatch on twitter. If such a thing was to actually happen, who do you think would win and why?

GM: Ah, the old ‘my dad’s bigger than your dad’ fight. That’s a tough one, as the person I’d want to win, isn’t necessarily the person I think would win. In a straight fight, I reckon it’d be Perturabo who’d come out on top, as he can take anything you can throw at him. He’d just let you pummel him until your fists were broken, your arms were leaden and you had nothing left to give. Then he’d smash you down with an iron fist. Game over.

If there was something you could go back in time and tell your pre-parent self, what would it be?

GM: Make the most of your hobby time and make sure to make time for it. Some folk need the pub, knitting, the gym or whatever is that’s their thing. Doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s your thing then you need it to maintain your mental equilibrium. So my advice to me back then would be to not think that putting hobby time aside is you being more ‘adult’, it’s just denying you a part of what make you who you are. Playing games and nerding out over SF/Fantasy/Horror and hobby is what makes me me, so I’d tell my old self to not listen to anyone who asks me if I think I’m too old to be playing games. I’m not and I never will be.

Many thanks to Graham for taking the time to share his experiences. – A blog about Warhammer 40k and the Horus Heresy by four Dads


  1. Excellent interview Dave. Some really interesting stuff in there.

    1. I can't take the credit mate, thanks to graham, and David before him, for agreeing to answer the questions. I'll do my best to hound some more authors in to submission!

  2. Great interview, loved the final comment. It really struck a chord with me. These interviews are good initiative.keep them up!

  3. Replies
    1. I purposely didn't ask anything about upcoming titles, I'm guessing authors get asked that all the time so I tried to be different :-)

  4. Fair play getting such a well respected author on the blog and for a good interview. Nice thought out questions and good weighty responses. Cheers to both.