Martin Klíma: 1989 student leader who found global games success
Martin Klíma was a student leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, helping organise the gathering in November 1989 that sparked the fall of communism, where he delivered a key speech.
While some other student leaders then went into politics, Klíma chose to enter business instead. Inspired by his beloved Dungeons and Dragons, he created the huge hit Czech role-playing board game Dragon’s Lair, which like things such as commercial TV and the arrival of McDonald’s helped define the 1990s in this country.
Intent on also finding international success he later moved into computer games and was a co-founder of Warhorse Studios, whose 2018 game Kingdom Come: Deliverance has sold over four million copies worldwide. I spoke to Martin Klíma at the company’s offices in the shiny new Libeň Docks district.
You were born in the UK. How did you come to be born in Britain?
“My parents defected from Czechoslovakia in 1968, in the wake of the Russian invasion.
“They first went to Austria and then they went to England.
“My father was a physicist – he is a physicist – and he was able to get a job at the University of Bristol, as a research assistant.
“His wife, my mother, went with him and a year later I was born, in Bristol.
“But they were actually able to legalise their stay in the UK, retroactively, and turn it into a prolonged business trip or sabbatical.”
So they didn’t get in trouble when they came back to Czechoslovakia?
“They were able to come back to Czechoslovakia without severe repercussion.
“However, my father never made a career in Czechoslovakia.
“Once he came back he was a research assistant till 1989, and only then did he get a promotion or the scientific recognition that he was due.
“And it’s a question for my parents – if they were sorry they came back.
“It’s a question for my parents – if they were sorry they came back.”
“Honestly, I’m not quite sure, because living abroad, without the possibility to come back and get in touch with your parents or relatives or friends, is very hard.
“Of course a lot of people did it, and some of them flourished and some of them didn’t.
“It’s one of these big life decisions.
“I’m actually quite happy I didn’t have a say in the decision. I was just 18 months old when we came back.”
Growing up what was your relationship to communism, to the authorities? Were your family political, for example?
“When I was growing up in normalisation Czechoslovakia, my uncle is Ivan Klíma, the famous Czech writer and dissident, so I sort of moved in this, but very indirectly – I never thought myself to be part of the opposition, or part of the dissent.
“It was just a very common situation, I think: You are taught from a very early age that you have to speak one way at home and another way at school, and that you have to be careful about what you are saying to the authorities or to your teachers.
“I never thought myself to be part of the opposition, or part of the dissent.”
“And of course when I was getting older I was able to get a better understanding of what’s going on in my country.”
What were your introductions to the worlds of science fiction and fantasy growing up?
“Well, that was one of the things that had a big influence on me.
“And actually I married a science fiction writer [Vilma Kadlečková], so that really changed my life in a most profound way.
“In the totalitarian regime there were pockets of, certainly not resistance, but of a certain independence.
“These sort of independent groups usually coalesced around some innocuous topics. It could be gardening or tourism, or it could be science fiction.
“That’s what I was attracted to and I think this is firstly because there were very few alternatives as to what to do, because the official literature was much more controlled and much more ideologically aligned with the official party line.
“Secondly, it was certainly because of some inherent qualities of science fiction as a genre.
“Because then, in the ‘80s, this kind of technological optimism was, I a dare to say, more common than it is today, and I for one sort of miss it in today’s discourse.”
You first heard about Dungeons and Dragons, the game, from a bizarre sounding magazine article. What was in that article?
“It was called ‘Death lurks in the dragon’s den’ and it was basically a sort of distillation of articles which were part of what today I know was this satanic moral panic in the ‘70s.
“And one thing that was swept into it was D&D, because of course in D&D you are ‘casting spells’ and you pretend to be a mage or a cleric or what have you, and of course it’s easy to get it confused with some kind of pagan ritual or whatever.
“I think this is the reason why it was disparaged by certain fringe groups in American society.
“And of course the news we got from the world beyond the Iron Curtain was heavily filtered, and the filter really amplified all these fringe elements.
“So we got this constant stream of news that these decaying, imperialistic societies are on the verge of self-destruction, and certainly that fit the picture very well.
“But it was so weird that it caught my attention [the piece said young people became so caught up in D&D that, believing they could fly, they jumped off roofs] I thought that I would love to learn more about it.
“I was able to persuade my parents to obtain a set of rules of basic D&D – and that changed my life, forever.”
“Then I got an opportunity, because by the late ‘80s my father was allowed to travel to the UK, and again actually to the University of Bristol, to have some lectures there and to do some work.
“So I was able to persuade my parents to obtain a set of rules of basic D&D – and that changed my life, forever.”
I guess one thing that also at least impacted your life a lot was when you became friends with Marek Benda, who is now famous as the longest-serving MP in the Czech lower house. He came from a well-known dissident family. How did spending time with Marek Benda and his family impact you?
“Actually we got acquainted through science fiction first, because he – for similar reasons to those I have outlined – was interested in this genre as well.
“He approached me because he was interested in getting some of the SF books that I had, so we were able to exchange them.
“Then one thing leads to another and we became friends.
“Of course this had a big impact on my life as well, because that led directly to my involvement in the student protests in 1989.”
And you and he started a kind of independent student union in the summer of 1989?
“Yes, that’s right – it was not just me and him.
“Before there was a plan to replace the buildings of the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics – where I was studying, as was Marek – by some new development, which I thought would be a terrible shame.
“So I started a petition and it was actually signed by hundreds of people, both staff and students of the faculty, as well as people outside it.
“It was really a sign that things were changing.
“This petition was my initiative.
“Then I talked to Marek about it and he suggested that we could try to create an independent student union at our faculty, so we approached the dean and of course he said, Thank you, it’s a very commendable idea but let’s not do it.
“Then we sort of felt we had reached the end.
“It was like this was as far as we can get using purely legal means, working within the system – and if we wanted to get further, we had to work outside the system.
“That’s why we got involved with students of other schools and faculties in establishing this independent student union [named STUHA].”
But is it the case that you were involved the organisation of the now of course very famous November 17 demonstration, or gathering that became a demonstration, in conjunction with the Union of Socialist Youth?
“Yes. In that independent union we wanted to use some well-known anniversary, or some special day, to organise a demonstration where we would be able to read some sort of manifesto and ask people to join us.
“In the late ‘80s, I think ever since ’88, there were regular anti-demonstrations.
“We wanted to use some anniversary to organise a demonstration where we would read some sort of manifesto and ask people to join us.”
“I for one felt that there was no progress being made.
“There were a few thousand people at the demonstrations, there were usually almost as many policemen and they would use water cannons and truncheons to disperse the demonstrations.
“There wouldn’t be that many serious repercussions. They wouldn’t imprison people or get them ejected from their schools or jobs, and so on.
“But you could get beaten and you could get into some kind of trouble, though it was not like everyone did get in trouble.
“So it was a relatively low risk endeavour for the participants, but at the same time the possibility of repercussions was so high that only a few people were willing to take the risk.
“So I felt that, again, we had reached the limits of where we can go and if we want to organise a demonstration where more people would be involved and people would come, we need some kind of official fig leaf for that.
“And there was a big discussion about that, because the people in the nascent independent student organisation would object to involving the Union of Socialist Youth, which was just an arm of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
“But in the end we were able to persuade them that this is a good idea, that this is the kind of compromise that we have to make in order to attract more people and to win over these wavering silent majority people.”
So it gave people the confidence to take part, because it was legal, could be advertised and was an official event [marking the 50th anniversary of Nazi persecution of Czech students on 17.11.1939]?
“Right, right. And because it was an official event we were able to get proper sound apparatus, stage equipment, and we were able to attract many more people than we would if it was just another independent, anti-regime demonstration.
“Of course we had to make some compromises. We had to agree on who would be talking at the demonstration.”
In your speech that you delivered at Albertov on that day you referred to the events of 1939, when the Nazis persecuted Czech students, and said servitude was worse than death, as well as making reference to the future – all of which sounds strong by the standards of that time. What were your feelings as you were delivering these words to this crowd at Albertov in November 1989?
“I was chosen by this very small group of people that were organising the demonstration as their representative, because they thought I had the best delivery.
“I was not thinking that much about the world-changing consequences that were about to unfold.”
“They probably liked the timbre of my voice or something like that.
“So I really focused on not failing them.
“I was not thinking that much about the world-changing consequences that were about to unfold.
“I was really focusing on speaking slowly so I could be understood, and delivering my lines with precision and the right kind of stress, articulation, enunciation.”
I’ve heard part of your speech and you certainly succeeded in that. Everyone knows what happened after that speech, on that day. But when did you feel in the following days that the revolution was won? Maybe you didn’t use the word revolution yet, but when did you feel the change had been made?
“I remember it actually quite distinctly.
“I think it was either Tuesday or Wednesday of the next week, when we started a student strike.
“Then I think on Tuesday there were rumours that the People’s Militia…which called themselves the ‘armoured fist of the working class’, though in reality it was a bunch of elderly met that pretended to be soldiers.
“There were rumours that the Communist Party would use them to crush the revolution, if you can call it that – to crush the strike at any rate – by force.
“In the meantime I had become part of the Central Strike Committee that was organising the student strike.
“We felt that we needed to take some measures, in case this happened, and we wrote a sort of proclamation that we might be crushed but we are not defeated, or something to that effect.
“And we took two copies of that, or maybe just one copy of the proclamation, and went to the US Embassy and tried to persuade the US chargé d’affaires to make a copy of it – and he was very hesitant about it.
“Then we went to the Russian Embassy and waited for maybe an hour until somebody was free to talk to us.
“Then a Russian came to us and read the proclamation.
“We explained that we wanted him to have it in the case that something happened to us…
“Because you have to understand that at that moment the Soviet Union – and it was not the Russian Embassy but the Embassy of the Soviet Union – under Mr. Gorbachev seemed like a more progressive, a more democratic state than our own state.
“We sort of felt that they might have some sort of leverage over the Czech Communist Party bosses.
“So that guy at the embassy read it and then said, ‘I think you don’t have to worry’, or words to that effect.
“And at that moment I felt like, ‘It’s over’.”
After the revolution you didn’t want to enter politics, saying that you weren’t experienced enough. Tell us about your beginnings in the area that you did go into, which was games production.
“This goes back to my story about D&D.
“In the late ‘80s there was a growing movement of underground science fiction literature, which was really very apolitical.
“It was not actual samizdat.”
Something like fanzines?
“Yes, it was something like fanzines – and it was usually produced with more sophisticated equipment than actual samizdat that’s written on a typewriter and with carbon copy paper.
“What we saw was that most communist factories and companies – they were called national enterprises – usually had some resources for printing their own company magazines or guidebooks, whatever they needed to print.
“And these people working in these positions were able to illegally publish limited quantities of books and fanzines, short story collections and so on.
“These were usually translated from English by people for free – and of course the authors never got a penny from this kind of publication.
“Print runs were maybe 50 or 100 copies and then they were sold or maybe exchanged with other people in the same area.
“I have several boxes of books like that at home, to this day.
“Once I had played D&D for a while I really wanted to share it with other people in Czechoslovakia.
“So with my future wife I translated it into Czech, with a view to publishing it.
“But before we could do that the revolution came and the whole landscape changed and now it was possible to publish it legally.
“So I approached the copyright holders TSR – and I never got any response from them.
“Of course the end of the regime also meant the end of the barriers for books and magazines from abroad, so we got acquainted with the genre of role-playing games and realised that D&D was an important one, and the first one, but still only one of the games – the genre was much wider.
“And because it was first, in a way it had certain limitations of imagination that is necessarily part of any work that sets out to create something completely new.
“So the conclusion was that we actually would be able to create a similar game ourselves – when we took the good bits that we liked about D&D and other good bits we liked in other games, and then we added some things that we created completely ourselves, by ourselves – and publish it as a new game.
“We did and we named the new game Dragon’s Lair, or Dragon’s Den, in honour of that article I mentioned earlier.
“This was really tremendously successful, because it was the exact right moment where everybody was looking for these new things, new ways of entertainment.
“And nobody knew about it. It was a quite famous, or well-known, pastime in other countries, especially in the US, but really was completely unfamiliar to people in Czechoslovakia.
“So we were able to sell many thousands of copies very quickly and we wrote sequels and published various expansions and so on.”
You have had phenomenal success with Warhorse Studios, in particular with Kingdom Come: Deliverance which sold millions of copies. That must be the biggest cultural product in recent years from the Czech Republic – more than any movies, literature, music, anything. Do you feel like the games industry gets the recognition that it deserves in the Czech Republic?
“Well, one should be very careful what he wishes for.
“In the 1880s there was a famous accident… I’m not sure if it was famous, but there was an accident in Cairo.
“Some royal guests were supposed to arrive to Cairo and the British fleet wanted to make some ceremonial welcome to them.
“The warships were ordered by the admiral of the fleet to form two columns that would move in parallel.
“Then the signal would be made and the leading ship would turn inwards and then they would form two lines, in parallel, going in the opposite direction.
“The two lines were ordered by the admiral to be 80 cables apart.
“The captains of the ships pointed out that the turning radius of their ships was 40 feet, so if they are 60 feet apart, then they will collide on their inward arc.
“But they were dismissed: ‘Obviously you can’t follow direct orders and that’s what you are supposed to do – you are not here to think, you are here to execute orders.’
“So they actually went there, they formed two lines, they started turning and then the two front ships actually collided.
“They didn’t sink, I think. But it’s an amazing display of this kind of institutional stupidity.
“You have the navy that used to be the best navy in the world and just 70 years previously defeated the French in the Napoleonic Wars and was this pinnacle of naval achievement.
“It was sort of the machine that kept the biggest empire in history together.
“Obviously it was attracting people who were not into it because they liked ships and liked the navy and had any sort of aptitude for it – they just liked the prestige and the status that came with it.
“And these people making decisions had these catastrophic results.
“This is an inevitable consequence of any field getting the prestige and recognition that it deserves.
“We are very lucky that we don’t have this kind of prestige and recognition that we deserve.”
“And this is going to happen with computer games one day – it is bound to happen.
“We are very lucky that we don’t have this kind of prestige and recognition that we deserve.”