Interview with Marcus Rowland, creator of Forgotten Futures.
Marcus, you are the guiding genius and one-man publisher of Forgotten
Futures, the Role-playing Game of Scientific Romances. What are
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.
And what attracted you to this genre?
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
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.
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
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.
"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?
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
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
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)?
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...
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?
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.
Forgotten Futures V, "Goodbye Piccadilly", is a collection of "End of The
World" alternate universes. What catastrophes did the Victorians and
Edwardian writers envisage?
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
What are the future directions for Forgotten Futures? Will there be a
Forgotten Futures VII?
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
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
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?
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.)
Where can our readers find more information on Forgotten Futures?
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
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.
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