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Interview with Marcus Rowland, creator of Forgotten Futures.

TGC: Marcus, you are the guiding genius and one-man publisher of Forgotten Futures, the Role-playing Game of Scientific Romances. What are "Scientific Romances"?

Marcus Rowland: Basically, scientific romances are proto-SF. There's a long history of futuristic and fantastic stories that preceded their popularisation in the USA in the 1920s, which is now largely forgotten. Everyone remembers Wells and Verne, but there were dozens of other authors, some of them very good, who have gradually faded from memory.

TGC: And what attracted you to this genre?

Marcus Rowland: I first got interested, as an SF fan, because my father owned a twenty- odd volume collection of Kipling which contained "As Easy As A.B.C.", the second story of his future history. It was an amazing story for its day, set in 2065 AD and describing a post-catastrophe high-tech civilisation with some very odd ideas. I went looking for the first story, "With The Night Mail", which turned out to be a wonderful read. For anyone who hasn't read it, WTNM is a tour de force; it was written in 1905, and starts out as a travelogue of a journey by airship then adds articles and advertisements "from the magazine in which it appeared" - in 2000 AD! So you get adverts for "The Standard Dirigible Company of Millwall and Buenos Aires", letters to the editor complaining about other airships, reports of broken lights (which are the equivalent of lighthouses but aimed upwards), and so forth. It was published as a book with colour illustrations at least once, and I'd dearly like to get hold of a copy.

Reading these stories made me wonder what else was around in the early days of SF, and I gradually found a few stories - then forgot about it for a good few years. In the late 1980s I took an evening class course on SF, taught by Brian Stableford, and he mentioned some historical material which aroused my interest again. By this time I was writing RPG articles, and an article on gaming the Kipling stories was a natural consequence. At more or less the same time GDW launched Space 1889, and that also reminded me about the old stories.

Due to a combination of several factors I wrote a few articles and one adventure for Space 1889, then decided that I wasn't going to do any more for the system. Briefly, Canal Priests of Mars was heavily edited without giving me any opportunity to object or make changes. 15,000 words of 55,000 were cut, which annoyed me considerably, so I decided not to do any more.

I had accepted a module commission from Chaosium Inc. around this time, and eventually decided that I couldn't write the book they wanted. I'd been given some money up front, and wrote to Chaosium explaining my difficulties and offering either to return it or to do something else instead; the project I suggested was a scientific romances supplement for Call of Cthulhu. They didn't like the idea, so I sent the money back, and someone else eventually did a very good job of the original project.

In preparing my proposal for Chaosium I'd done a lot of thinking about the possibilities of the genre, and eventually I decided that it was a good enough idea that I'd write my own game, which I launched in 1993. I could have gone looking for a publisher, but I had some experience of the computer shareware market and decided to try marketing it that way, as text and graphics on disk. It was received reasonably well, so I carried on that way, except that I'm now using HTML, and have converted all of the earlier material to HTML for the CD-ROM.

In hindsight I might have been able to find a publisher then, but I would probably have had to sell all rights to the system. I could also have sold it more effectively if I'd had Usenet and WWW access at that stage, but in fact I only got on line a couple of years ago. But on the whole it's gone reasonably well.

One of the offshoots of the original game was the FF Library, a collection of illustrated articles and stories from various magazines, also on disk. This started off small, but is now a couple of hundred megabytes on CD-ROM. That's given me the space to include some very large graphics and some extremely obscure novels and stories, that were in real danger of vanishing forever; for example, the last release added the complete Raffles stories including a novel which had been more or less forgotten for many years, two world atlases from 1903 and 1913, and about ninety megabytes of new articles and illustrations. I'm always on the lookout for more, and while I can't promise that the next release will add as much new material, it'll certainly be considerably bigger.

TGC: Forgotten Futures presents a number of distinct game universes based on different scientific romances. The first Forgotten Futures collection (The A.B.C. Files) is set in the 21st-century airship utopia of Kipling's "With the Night Mail" and "As Easy as A.B.C.". Could you describe this world? To my mind, a real utopia would lack the ingredient of conflict essential to great role-playing - what are the sources of conflict in the airship utopia?

Marcus Rowland: The Kipling world isn't exactly Utopia, although I have to admit most of my publicity does describe it as "Kipling's Airship Utopia". The first story has a lot of Victorian/Edwardian values; it's mostly driven by trade, and although war is obsolete (someone proved that it wasn't profitable) there are still business rivalries and the elements to contend with. Another obsolete idea is democracy, replaced by a combination of libertarianism and technocracy, and by an intense fear of crowds, mob rule, and the State. The Aerial Board of Control rules the world, but its main job is to ensure that the airships run on time, and stop anything that might lead to crowds! The second story elaborates on this a little, by showing the A.B.C. in action, and can best be described as a techno-thriller.

I'd agree that there's no obvious "enemy" in the campaign I ended up writing, although two quasi-terrorist organisations, "The People's League For Democracy" and the "Sons of McDonough", are important in the adventure. I really wanted to write more about what it would be like to live in that world, than about what it would be like to be a heroic adventurer in that world. In the end I did both, and I think that avoiding the most obvious "these are your enemies" stereotypes helped me to make a good job of it. Nevertheless, it's worth bearing in mind that it's my first attempt at designing a complete game world, and in some ways it shows it; I'd probably do things differently if I was writing it again, but the revised copyright laws that came into effect in 1995 make this unlikely at present.

TGC: "The Log of The Astronef" (Forgotten Futures 2) returns us to 1900 AD and the exploration of space. The solar system of the 1920s and 1930s pulp science-fiction was strewn with alien civilisations, rampant life-forms, and scantily-clad females of various species. How did the Victorians see the final frontier? What strange physical theories and odder technologies did they use to reach for the stars?

Marcus Rowland: The stories I based this on were written in 1900, when it was generally believed that there was intelligent life on Mars, and that the solar system might harbour life on several worlds. Basically, you've got the alien civilisations and plenty of life forms, but the females aren't scantily clad. Most of them are remarkably humanoid, but George Griffith, who wrote the stories, avoided some of the worst cliches; for example none of the aliens speak English, and there is no telepathy or quick fix to overcome the communications barrier.

(In the later novelisation though, "A Honeymoon In Space", Griffith has the Martians speaking English, a very bad idea which is poorly explained, and seems to have been put in so that something the Martian leader says justifies a massacre at the hands of the hero.)

Let's see; Griffith's aliens look human, but they are blind and degenerate on the Moon, nine foot tall and hostile on Mars, seven foot tall but friendly on Ganymede, and winged (and entirely innocent) on Venus. Saturn has lots of monsters. The stories never get to Mercury or the outermost planets, although they are covered in the RPG.

Griffith describes the space drive as a machine that splits gravity into its "positive and negative" elements. This implies everything from artificial black holes to tractor and pressor beams. The Astronef, the hero's spaceship, is essentially a private yacht for space, but has some unusual features including powerful artillery, Maxim guns and other firearms, and a bow designed for ramming. It has an airlock, space suits that resemble diving suits with oxygen bottles, and an electric oven in the galley.

Griffith's story was essentially a travelogue of the Solar System, but it included plenty of hooks for later developments. For example, the first contact with Mars ends in a massacre, any attempt to improve relationships is going to be rather interesting. The moon has the ruins of an ancient civilisation, exploring them should be good for several adventures. Ganymede has natives who seem to be more advanced than Earth. And so on... This let me write five adventures that span the solar system, everything from a mystery story set aboard an ocean liner to a rescue mission on Mars and an attempt to counter a Fiendish Ganymedan Plot that visits Earth, Ganymede, and the Asteroids.

It's probably the setting that I had the most fun writing, and has been very popular, and it's likely that it will be developed further as the printed version of Forgotten Futures appears. I'm also developing a new game world based on some of Griffiths' other writing, which I've described below.

TGC: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is justly famous for characters such as Sherlock Holmes, Sir Nigel Loring, and the scientist-hero Professor Challenger. The last is usually only remembered for his exploits in the dinosaur-filled Lost World. What other daring exploits can player-characters undertake in "Professor Challenger's Mysterious World" (Forgotten Futures 3)?

Marcus Rowland: Briefly, there were five Prof. Challenger stories; "The Lost World" was the first and is the best known, but others include an end-of-the-world story "The Poison Belt", "The Disintegration Machine" which is a nice mad scientist story, "When The World Screamed" which is VERY weird science, and "The Land Of Mists", a very long novel about spiritualism which I'd describe as the worst fiction Doyle ever wrote. I've also based it on "The Horror of the Heights", which isn't a Challenger story but has enough similarities that they have the feel of being set in the same world. And that's the world of Weird Science (note the capitals), where any unlikely theory is probably true, or possibly is less weird than the truth.

The obvious things to do in this setting are to get involved in strange experiments, unravel the mysteries of the cosmos, and get chased by dinosaurs (or shoot them with bloody big guns). The adventures go to places like Tunguska, Tibet, the Lost World, and Loch Ness. There's also a big section on some of the stranger scientific ideas around, and a random Weird Science Plot generator based on rolling dice and looking at the indexes of books on the subject; the first time I tried this I ended up with a plot called "Einstein at the Earth's Core", in which Einstein asks the adventurers to help him travel to the hollow centre of the Earth, so that he can conduct the Michaelson-Morely experiment on a REALLY big scale.

This has been another very popular collection; oddly, the most popular part is one of the scenarios, "Free Nessie", in which the players are a group of children trying to save the Loch Ness Monster from Professor Challenger and a group of marine biologists. Think of the Famous Five meeting a slightly cuter version of Jaws and you'll have the idea...

TGC: Ask a role-player to discuss the horror genre and he/she'll mention Call of Cthulhu or Vampire and its siblings. In Forgotten Futures 4, "The Carnacki Cylinders", you introduce us to a different kind of horror. What are the terrors to be faced by adventurers in this alternate universe? And just what are the Carnacki Cylinders?

Marcus Rowland: Answering the last question first, I was thinking of phonograph cylinders. Carnacki uses them in his investigations several times, and I decided that he would probably dictate his notes.

Carnacki lives in the world of the ghost detective story. It was a moderately common genre in the late 19th and early 20th century, and these particular stories, by William Hope Hodgson, are by far the best of them. They were written from 1910 to 1913, so you have an odd mixture of Edwardian high-tech and the supernatural. For example, Carnacki doesn't just use a pentacle to hold off the forces of the Ab-natural; he uses an Electric Pentacle, consisting of dozens of special tubes on Bakelite bases. He investigates hauntings with cameras, a recording phonograph, a little magic, and some very healthy scepticism. He invents a gadget that I can only describe as mechanical telepathy. The stories range from outright horror to lurking fear to outright fakery; two of the stories mix fakery and genuine supernatural events, which in one case has tragic consequences.

In the Carnacki stories the supernatural, or as he calls it the Ab- natural, is an actively malevolent force. Ghosts may be harmless, but some have the power to kill you or drive you insane, and you never know what you're dealing with until you investigate. They represent a gap in the "world-wall" which can let in incomprehensibly powerful forces; it's the job of the supernatural detective to find out what's going on and close such gaps when they occur. You'd have to be out of your mind to do it more than once, of course. Or a role-playing character...

The adventures are set on the London underground, in a country mansion, and a Brighton film studio, and deal with a couple of genuine hauntings and one that isn't all it seems. There are also a couple of long scenario outlines, and a lot more short ones.

TGC: Forgotten Futures V, "Goodbye Piccadilly", is a collection of "End of The World" alternate universes. What catastrophes did the Victorians and Edwardian writers envisage?

Marcus Rowland: Most of the stories are about the destruction of London, not the end of the world as a whole, but it was a very popular genre. If you look at the whole field, London suffers alien invasion, war, plague, pollution, revolution, volcanoes, Americanisation, exploding gas mains, flooding, freezing, and dozens of other nasty fates. I've included stories by several authors to cover the full spectrum of doom and gloom.

Rather than describing a single game world, I've written it as source book about London and about disaster stories in general; premonitions of doom, the first real hints of catastrophe, the disaster itself, and its aftermath. There's a history of the world described in each story, along with scenario ideas and an alternate worlds transport system for linking them all together. I can best describe this as psychic Sliders with some extremely nasty side effects.

Instead of basing the adventures on any of the stories, I've set one in a world where the Siege of Sidney Street led to a communist rising in Whitechapel, another is my tribute to King Kong and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Both of these are very long, so there was just enough room for three adventure outlines; all five can be combined in an excessively destructive campaign.

TGC: The latest Forgotten Futures collection, "Victorian Villainy", covers melodrama, crime, punishment, and so forth. How do you successfully create a melodramatic game? Is it a state of mind? Special rules?

Marcus Rowland: It's a mixture of both of the above, plus knowledge of the stereotypes and archetypes of the genre. The main differences between this genre and normal role-playing are that often one of the players will be running the Villain, and that players need to keep a clear distinction between what they know and what their character knows; for example, the players may know that kindly lawyer Thompson is actually the villain of the piece, but their characters will not until they uncover him.

I've developed guidelines for playing the main character archetypes of melodrama. For example, if you're playing the Villain you need to be prepared to twirl your moustache, speak in asides to the audience, and so forth. The Hero has to be clean cut, handsome, and ready to help a damsel in distress. The Romantic Lead has to sing, be kind to small children and animals, and swoon prettily to give the gentlemen a chance to loosen her stays.

I've included sections on these main character types plus Anti-Heroes, Henchmen, and the supporting cast, and rules for asides to the audience, soliloquies, and songs. Since this is a genre where the Villain is usually doomed to fail, I've included ways to recycle characters and roles, and run more than one character simultaneously. Think of a stage play where someone is doubling in more than one role and you'll have the idea.

The fiction accompanying the collection covers a range of melodramatic forms, including three plays (one of them based on Frankenstein), some of E.W. Hornung's "Raffles" stories, and the most melodramatic crime novel I could find, Guy Boothby's "A Bid For Fortune", an 1894 story that features Dr. Nikola, a villain who probably inspired Blofeld, Carl Peterson, and the like, and is an acknowledged source for Dr. Doom.

The adventures are a crime scenario featuring a criminal genius and a very high body count, a country house drama with all of the players running two or more characters, which can easily be converted to a freeform scenario, and a tale of sabotage in the world of bicycle racing. There are also eight scenario outlines, ranging from supernatural horror to a plot to paralyse London with clockwork Queen Victoria replicants.

Judging by the number of registrations this has been very popular indeed, and it's another genre that I hope to support more in future collections.

TGC: The best game systems combine exciting and vibrant settings with elegant and usable mechanics. Could you briefly describe the basic game mechanics in Forgotten Futures for us? How does Forgotten Futures measure up in terms of character creation?

Marcus Rowland: Alex Stewart has described it as a "beer and pretzels game", that can be picked up and understood very easily if you have any knowledge of RPGs, and I hope that's true. The little booklet that accompanied Arcane magazine in 1997, which got the core rules and an introductory adventure into 32 pages, should be proof enough of that.

There are three characteristics, Body, Mind, and Soul, which are used as the basis for skills. Players start off with 21 points to buy characteristics and skills. Characteristics start off cheap but are soon very expensive; for example, Body 1 is free, Body 2 costs 2 points, Body 6 costs 10 points. Skills are based on characteristics, or on the average of them, plus the points spent on them. One common skill is "Actor", which is based on the average of Mind and Soul, rounded up; spend one point and the skill is the average plus one, and so on. It's a little more complicated in a couple of cases; for instance, Doctor is based on half Mind, Martial arts on half the average of Body and Mind.

It may sound complicated, but in practice character generation is very quick because there are no advantages, disadvantages, or modifiers in the process. You can produce a character in under five minutes, less if you use the spreadsheet templates or Java program from my web site and the FF CD-ROM.

I've made one simplifying assumption; if you have a skill, and are using it routinely, or in a situation where there is virtually no chance of failure, you don't have to throw any dice. That's an enormous time saver! For example, if you have Linguist 3 and want to buy a box of matches in a foreign country you don't need to roll dice; if you want to buy a Mk. 3 electric pentacle you do. If you can drive a car and want to go out for a routine drive you don't roll; if you are in a car chase you do.

Where dice are used, skills or characteristics are rolled against each other, or against an arbitrary difficulty number, using 2D6 and a simple results table. For example, someone with the skill Marksmanship 8 might try a shot which the referee says is Difficulty 6. On a 9 or less he succeeds; on 10-11 he fails; 12 is always a failure, and tends to be an extra bad result. Similarly, someone might try to use his Linguist 4 to overcome another character's Detective 5 skill; he needs a 6 or less to succeed. It's that simple. Things get a little more complicated in combat, where all actions in a round take place simultaneously and there's a second dice roll to determine how much damage has been done, but it's still pretty quick.

There are no hit points; instead weapons and other attacks have Effect numbers, which attack the victim's Body. Depending on the result characters can receive wounds of varying degrees of severity, from a bruise to instant death, with the exact nature of the damage depending on the weapon used as well as its Effect. If you're wounded you're slowed and may have penalties on some skill use, but a single wound can often be fatal, and it happens often enough to keep players on their toes. Healing is slow, as in the real world, and you can die nastily from infected wounds if things go wrong.

It's a very simple system, and I'm very proud to say that it has spawned one of the funniest Murphy's Rules illustrations; since Body is used for all manual skills including stealth, it can be argued that an elephant is much more stealthy than a mouse. It took three years for anyone to notice...

TGC: What are the future directions for Forgotten Futures? Will there be a Forgotten Futures VII?

Marcus Rowland: I'm writing FF VII now, but it's going rather slowly at present, due to illness over Christmas and other problems. It's based on two novels by George Griffith, "The Angel of the Revolution" and "Olga Romanoff"; they were published in 1893 and 1894, and describe a revolution, which controls the secret of flight, that destroys the Tsar and creates a socialist state covering half the world in 1904, and the revenge of the Tsar's descendants in 2030-37. The stories have everything, from flying ships to romance to a planetary catastrophe that dwarfs the dinosaur killer.

With the help of Heliograph Inc. I've been lucky enough to obtain an illustrated copy of the first book, with pictures by Fred T. Jane (of Jane's Fighting Ships fame); I'm currently waiting to get photographs of the pictures in a very rare illustrated edition of the second book, which belongs to the Science Fiction Foundation at Liverpool University. (Editor's Note: Marcus has now had access to this book. These pictures were also by Fred T. Jane) My big problem will be getting everything onto a single floppy disk - the illustrations will have to be reproduced VERY small - but I'll be putting larger versions on the next release of the FF CD-ROM, which will be published simultaneously.

I'm writing the worldbook now, to be followed by the adventures. Given my current slow progress I doubt that it'll appear before July, possibly much later.

TGC: Forgotten Futures is "shareware", published and distributed by yourself. Have you ever been tempted to publish it "commercially" or have a RPG company license it for commercial sales?

Marcus Rowland: I've now licensed the system and the material I've written for it to an American company, Heliograph Inc., who are about to launch a printed version of the game and will be printing most of the material I've written, and work by other authors.

The first release should be out any time now; it contains the rules, historical timelines and essays, and a lot of extra material describing various types of campaign, plus an introductory adventure and the short form of the rules, which can be photocopied freely. It's lavishly illustrated and looks absolutely beautiful; for example, the cover is an abstract-impressionist rendering of a Martian tripod, from The War of the Worlds, as if drawn by Kandinsky. After that the next releases will be based on FF2, including the fiction, adventures, and worldbook. (Editor's Note: The printed version of Forgotten Futures has now been published by Heliograph Inc.)

TGC: Where can our readers find more information on Forgotten Futures?

Marcus Rowland: Mostly on-line.

My web site is http://www.ffutures.demon.co.uk/ and has two of the Forgotten Futures collections and some articles readable on line, two others downloadable as zipped files. At the moment it's a little messy, and sooner or later I want to tidy it up and put all of the game stuff on line, but it isn't going to happen soon; for one thing I'd need more web space than Demon provide to get it all on line, and I've already got some overflow onto another site.

Heliograph Inc. have two web sites; http://www.forgottenfutures.com/ is mainly for Forgotten Futures, and carries all the FF games as zipped files, http://www.heliograph.com/ is for their other products, which are mostly for Space 1889, such as the Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographical Society.

TGC: On behalf of The Guild Companion and our readers, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions, and to wish you every success in continuing to bring these visionary Victorian and Edwardian stories to a worldwide role-playing audience.

Editor's Note

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