Victorian Adventure Enthusiast Interviews
John R. "Buck" Surdu and Christopher Palmer,
creators of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times
Here at VAE we've been wanting to give some coverage to Victorian era miniatures for some time.
It's not our area of expertise so we went to two experts... and ended up with an amazing interview!
Please enjoy this chat with John R. "Buck" Surdu and Christopher Palmer, creators of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times
Victorian Adventure Enthusiast- Who came up with the name "G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times"?
Surdu: Like everything in G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., it was a collaborative effort. Victorian names tend to be flowery. I have a book on my shelf that is called Science Fiction by Gaslight. I liked that name. Chris and I worked to build a phrase whose acronym would be G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.
Palmer: Like Buck said we worked on the title together. We liked the name “Gaslight” and we wanted to use that somehow, then we got the idea to make it an acronym and then developed a fancy Victorian sounding title to fit it.
VAE- The basic rules-set for G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is for the "skirmish" level of miniature wargaming. For non-wargaming enthusiasts how do you define a skirmish style game?
Surdu: Battles involve large numbers of units. Skirmishes are smaller actions. These may be small parts of larger battles, actions fought by small advanced parties or foragers, or other fights involving smaller units. It’s helpful to think of the parts of a battle in which the hero of a movie is involved as a skirmish.
Palmer: A skirmish style game involves only a few, to a couple of dozen, miniature figures, and these figures usually each represent a single man. Larger battles usually involve many more figures, with these figures often representing a larger number of men on the battlefield.
VAE- You eventually did a book to cover larger scale combat: "Battles By G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.". Was it hard to "upscale" the rules?
Surdu: In “scaling up” the rules, we wanted to make sure we retained the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. “feel.” There were a couple of challenges in doing this.
The first was to determine how a player could control more units without slowing down the game. In G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., which unit gets to perform an action (e.g., shoot, move, reload) is determined by the draw of a card. With a small number of players, each controlling just one or two units, this works fine. When players try to control many units and when a game involves many players, invariably there are times when most of the players are watching one player do something. We had to invent a new control mechanism that retained the random, suspenseful feel of a card-based activation scheme but allowed several players to act simultaneously. We think we succeeded quite well with our “double random” system. In fact, we re-used the system in our World War II rules, Look, Sarge, No Charts.
The second challenge was coming up with a game mechanic that allowed the faster resolution of shooting. In G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. a die is rolled for each firing soldier, and the player counts up “hits.” I wanted to resolve shooting with a single die roll but get a result that would be close to what you would get if you rolled ten dice using the basic G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. mechanism. I spent some time working with probability distributions and built a chart that accomplishes this goal. I wrote an article about the use of the binomial distribution and how I conducted the statistical analysis to develop this chart. None of the gaming magazines would publish it.
Palmer: After the release of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. rulebook, we found players immediately wanting to push the envelope on how many figures and vehicle they could fit into a game. One of those players, Robert Beattie, came up with some interesting ideas for doing this. We looked at what he was doing and worked a little with him to help figure what our goals would be with the new rulebook. This was the hard part, deciding up front what we wanted to achieve with the rules. Once this we did this, Buck, who has a great background in statistics and simulation, worked on synthesizing the numeric elements of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. to accommodate a larger scale of battle.
We also worked on expanding and refining the rules for vehicles, and I worked on a section for the rulebook called “Leviathans by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.” which allowed players to incorporate large multi-gun, multi-unit landship type vehicles into their games.
VAE- When did you decide to create the rules-set that would become G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.?
Surdu: Chris and I had collaborated on a set of rules for fighting pirate battles. I wrote the set in which each player controls just three or four figures, called Blood and Swash. Chris wrote the rules for larger scale actions, called Thunder and Plunder. G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is a pretty direct descendent of Thunder and Plunder. I was living in Texas at the time, but Chris and I would talk on the phone from time to time. I’ve always been a sucker for Wells and Verne. Chris had experiment with some games involving Leonardo DiVinci machines. Over the course of a number of conversations, the idea just emerged. Things happen like that when Chris and I get to brain storming – and there’s never any booze involved.
Palmer: In the early 90s a range of figures came out for fighting battles in an alternate history Wild West to accompany a game named “Deadlands”. I picked up a couple packs of these figures; one that was Civil War style soldiers with big steam-boiler type jetpacks on their backs, and another that was Civil War soldiers armed with flame-thrower type apparatus. They really made something in my imagination click and I combined them with my existing collection of Civil War figures and started running games with a self-written set of rules called, “Civil War Science.” I was messing around with these rules, and meanwhile I and another friend started toying around with developing a Renaissance war-game involving Leonardo’s inventions.
About this time Buck sent me a set of rules he was working on for Pirates, called “Blood & Swash”. I was impressed with what he had done. Then, while talking to him on the phone I mentioned that I thought it would be neat to have a set of rules like “Blood & Swash” where you could actually take the Hero characters out of the skirmish game and set them down in a bigger battle while still having the abilities for the Hero figures remain the same in both systems. He told me to try to see what I could come up with, and with some help from him I developed “Thunder and Plunder.”
Following the publication of the Pirate rules set somehow all our conversations and musings jelled into G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.
VAE- Did you have a specific design philosophy in mind?
Surdu: Again we were growing the rules out of some existing game mechanics. Our overriding philosophy, however, was to enable, not encumber, the player. By this I mean we did not want to impose our vision of some VSF world onto the players. We did not create some “history,” into which the players had to buy. We didn’t create a bunch of vehicles; we built charts that allowed players to create their own vehicles or create attributes for some vehicle the built from their own imagination on their work bench. We didn’t create weapons; we created ways for players to invent weapons. We didn’t create creatures; we created ways for players to make creatures. I think this is source of our success. The G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. system is simple enough that players can customize it to suit their own vision of Victorian science fiction. There are players fighting on Mars, fighting the great Prussian invasion of Texas, refighting the battles along the Northwest Frontier but supplemented with steam-powered equipment, and many others.
I don’t know if you’d call it a philosophy, but our other major design concept was that excitement and humor occurs when things go wrong. The only “vision” we imposed on our players is that these steam powered inventions aren’t as reliable as your Ford truck. You have to roll to see the motormen in the back can keep the engines running each turn, and if they konk out you have to try to restart them. This creates great suspense in the middle of a game. In addition, a roll of “20” on a twenty-sided die is always bad. It’s exciting when you take careful aim with your cannon at that advancing Martian tripod, and roll a “20,” indicating that your gun has jammed. Additionally, that same, otherwise unstoppable tripod can be disabled by a rifle shot if the player rolls a “20” when trying to “save” after being hit.
Palmer: I think Buck has already explained our philosophy really well. I would just add that another aspect we wanted to incorporate into the rules was something of a Hollywood movie feel. That is one of the reasons we classified the troops used in the game as Main Characters and Extras. We wanted to encourage heroic actions amongst the game’s Main Characters who, if it were a movie, would be the ones to receive top billing on the marquee, whereas the Extras were the poor cannon fodder who would be billed in the credits as “Soldier Number 2”
This was also the reason we decided to make the machinery in the game less than perfect. There is nothing more exciting in a cliffhanger than to have the engine on your steam powered tank suddenly conk out while being charged by a thousand angry natives.
VAE- Many fans of the game seem to love the fact that they can use almost any miniature in the game because of its "gonzo" setting. Was that one of your intents when designing the game?
Palmer: Yes. Besides our desire to allow players to design their own world they wanted to game in, we also wanted to allow players to start playing without a huge initial investment. Most wargamers who pick up the rules can start playing with stuff they already have on hand. Just throw in a couple plastic dinosaurs from the toy store, and a dozen or so figures and you’ve got yourself a game.
Also, there are so many great figures available in the market these days, we wanted the only limit to be the player’s imagination.
VAE- How easy would it be for a non-wargamer to pick up and play G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.?
Surdu: Our experience is that non-wargamers can more easily pick up skirmish games than battles. They can more easily identify with the sergeant leading his squad against carnivorous lichen monsters or African natives armed with ray guns than they can with generals maneuvering large forces.
The G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. rules are very easily understood by inexperienced and younger players. Early G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. play tests involved my downstairs neighbor’s junior-high kids. My youngest child has been playing G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and Blood and Swash since she was about seven. Today she routinely beats adults.
Palmer: I would think it would be very easy. There are no grand tactics nor military jargon that a player would need to know. Also, the rule systems are not overly complicated.
VAE- Why did you pick Victorian *science fiction* as the subject? What drew you to VSF over other genres? Why not just do a game focused on historical Victorian combat?
Surdu: As I mentioned earlier, I love Victorian science fiction, particularly the works of Verne and Wells. I don’t read much fiction, but the fiction I read is of this genre, the works of AEW Mason (the Drum, The Four Feathers), H. Ryder Haggard, and (though not properly Victorian) Edgar Rice Burroughs.
I have a large collection of old movies, most in black and white. I really enjoy the science fiction movies of the 50’s and 60’s.
Palmer: At the time we published, there was not much available in the way of rules that covered this genre, so we perceived a need. We also were both fans of Victorian adventure literature and adventure movies.
VAE- Were there specific books or films that you took inspiration from? Are you a fan of Victorian literature?
Surdu: I can’t get enough of the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea!
Palmer: I don’t think there were specific books that were an inspiration, but more the feel and atmosphere of Victorian literature that we took with us. It’s that quality of man conquering his world through use of machines and the ability of his mind to achieve anything.
Yes, I think we are both fans of Victorian literature. Also, a number of modern books that try to evoke the same spirit.
VAE: Victorian SC writer HG Wells created his own miniature wargames rules. Did you ever think that you were talking war gaming back to its roots by creating a VSF game?
Surdu: Absolutely. If you dig around my Web site, you'll see a short history of how I got involved. I began by using Little Wars and those same firing Britains cannons pictured in the book.
VAE- Do you have a favorite manufacturer of miniatures for Victorian Era gaming?
Surdu: Gene Kelley once said that you never answer the question, “Who was your favorite leading lady or dance partner?”
When we released the rules, we contracted Eureka Miniatures in Australia to make us a Victoria Hawkes figure with seven different hands and four different heads so that it could be customized. I still have a soft spot for that figure, so if push came to shove, I’d have to say Eureka Miniatures. Their figures may have provided some of the initial impetus to make a Victorian science fiction game in the first place.
Palmer: It’s hard to pick a favorite, there currently are so many. But I think I would have to give a nod to Brigade Games. They, along with The London Warroom, were early proponents of the rules. When G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. was first published, these sellers had the rules right out on their counter and really helped the public get to know them. In fact Lon Weiss of Brigade Games was such a fan of the rules that we arranged with him for Brigade Games to produce a range of figures under the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. name. These figures are some of my favorites.
VAE- "Victoria Hawkes" is the character who narrates the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. book on the American Civil War. Who created the character of Hawkes? What prompted the idea to feature her journal entries as the background material?
Surdu: That was Chris’ brilliant idea! It’s very unique. I’ve never seen another scenario book like that.
Palmer: That was mainly my idea. We decided we wanted to do a scenario book to help sell the rules. But, so many scenario books in the market for other genres and rules are merely a collection of battles with very little narrative in between. I wanted to do something different, so I thought it would be neat to make the scenario book more like a novel. From there it was a matter of coming up with the idea. I wanted to do a central character, and I wanted to make it a girl to be a little different. I came up with the name Hawkes from the group Buck and I game with, Harford Area Weekly Kriegspielers, or H.A.W. K. s. I chose Victoria because it just seemed like the quintessential Victorian woman’s name. The journal idea just seemed like a natural progression in the development of the book because we planned to do more of them and this seemed a way that we could tie them together; having each a different journal form Miss Hawkes.
VAE- The last book published in the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. was "To Be Continued by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.". This book moved the background forward to the pulp/cliffhanger era. Were there many challenges to applying the rules-set to a new genre? Or was it merely a matter of provided different weapons stats and background information?
Surdu: Actually, it was easier than writing Battles by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. The challenge, of course, was to retain the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. feel. We re-inserted some of the Blood and Swash mechanics that we had take out when designing G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. in order to streamline the game. In TBCBG players only control four of five figures. As a result we wanted a little more customization.
I’m a great fan of the movie serials from the 30’s and 40’s, like Undersea Kingdom, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. That was the feel we were trying to get in TBCBG. We envisioned a series of short, one-hour scenarios linked together like a movie serial. The “new” in TBCBG as a member of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. family, is the tables to help create settings for “episodes.” We also added rules for super heroes. Many of the old serials brought comic book heroes to the screen, such as Captain Marvel and Superman.
Palmer: There weren’t that many challenges to making the rules fit for a new genre. In fact, players had already been taking the rules and pushing them into the WWII era and back to Ancient times. It was a testament to the flexibility of the rules.
What we wanted to do was come up with something that would truly capture the feeling of the old Serials from the 30s and 40s. So we conceived of the idea of doing short linked scenarios like the old cliffhangers. Then it was a simple matter of updating the weapons charts and adding provisions for more typical 30s-40s movie elements like vehicles, femme fatales, animal and human sidekicks, superheroes and other such things.
VAE- In 2003 "Adventures and Expeditions by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T." was released. This book takes the basic G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. rules and expands upon them to create a VSF roleplaying game. Did you always intend to create a RPG based on your wargame? How did Chris Johnson get involved in writing this book?
Surdu: No, we didn’t plan on a role playing game. Chris was a fan of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., but he was a role player. He asked if he could write a G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. role playing game. We accepted his offer, but I wanted to format the book to make sure all the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. books had the same look.
That’s when Chris and I decided to trademark G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. We were hoping that others would be interested in publishing G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. scenario books or products. We could control the look and quality through the licensing of the trademark. So far we’ve had not takers.
Palmer: No, it hadn’t been our original intention. I think that with all our supplements we were always just following where the players were taking the rules on their own. We perceived that there were a significant number of players that were bending the rules to fit a more RPG style of game. One of these, Chris Johnston, seemed to be doing a lot of work on the subject. So, through talks with him he agreed to do a full supplement. In fact it is more than a supplement, “A&E” is a stand alone set of rules on its own.
VAE- Can we look forward to any future G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. books?
Surdu: Yes, Chris spearheaded the effort to design rules for fleet battles involving aether flyers and the like. It’s been on my to-do list to expand the aerial rules for G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.-scale skirmish actions. Our intent is to roll these into what we’re calling the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Compendium. This will republish all the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. into a single volume, correct errors in the earlier editions, provide amplification and clarification, and also add these new rules.
Palmer: One of the last areas where we felt there was player need, that we hadn’t addressed, was in the area of flying machines. We had originally just lumped them in with all vehicles, but we found that players really wanted to use them a lot, and were asking many questions about specific rules to use them.
So, Buck and I began doing preliminary talking and play-testing to develop a set of flying rules. We also felt that we had done all we wanted to with G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and that, since the rules had grown haphazardly in answer to player needs, perhaps we should finish off by combing everything we had done into a G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Compendium which would be kind of a one stop resource for players. To this, we want to add the flying rules so players would also be getting something new.
VAE: Will the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Compendium include "Adventures and Expeditions by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T."?
Surdu: Probably not. We see the role-playing game as a stand-alone product. Including it is complicated by the fact that we've lost touch with Chris Johnston.
VAE- Where can folks go to learn more about the game?
Surdu: The best place is to join our Yahoo Groups list. There are hundreds of players to share ideas and feed off each other. Chris and I monitor, ask questions, spur conversation, etc.
Palmer: Players can join our Yahoo group at:
They can also search Amazon.com for listings of the books that contain descriptions and page images.
Also, those interested are welcome to contact us.
Surdu: One more note: In the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” James Cagney, as James M. Cohan, says that in his collaborations with his partner, there was no “senior partner” and “junior partner.” That’s certainly true of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. books. Chris takes the lead on some of the efforts, and I take the lead on others. I really enjoy the operations research-like aspects of rules design. Chris brings a creativity to the process that has been instrumental in what G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. has become.
Palmer: I would like to echo Buck’s sentiments. The collaboration effort between us has been, and still is, an enjoyable partnership. I think we both bring something to the table that helps compliment the other.
Christopher Palmer is an antique dealer who enjoys the pursuit and study
of items from the Victorian era. A wargamer since high school, he has
often combined this hobby with his other interests: writing and
photography. He has been published in Wargames Digest and The Courier.
Having written several sets of home rules, his first venture into rules
publishing was Blood and Swash / Thunder and Plunder, a collaborative
effort with Buck Surdu. Since the publishing of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., Chris
has published ACW by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.: The Journals of Victoria Hawkes:
volume I: 1860-1863 and co written Battles by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., To Be
Continued... By G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., and Look, Sarge, No Charts: WWII.
Buck Surdu is a career Army officer and life-long wargamer. His first
forway into game design was a board game, Beer and Pretzels Urban
Combat, written and pbulished while he was in high school. Since then
he as authored or co-authored several sets of miniatures rules,
including Battles for Empire, Napoleonic Scenarios, Beer and Pretzels
Skirmish, Santa Anna Rules, Blood and Swash / Thunder and Plunder, Beer
and Pretzels Ironclads, Wellington rules, Fire Team Vietnam,
G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., Battles by G.A.S.L.I..G.H.T., To Be Continued... By
G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T., and Look, Sarge, No Charts: WWII. More information
can be found at www.bucksurdu.com.
Buck and Chris are about to release A Union So Tested: Look, Sarge, No
Charts: American Civil War in March 2009, and Buck will release Quick
and the Dead: Coastal Actions in World War II soon afterward.