Victorian Adventure Enthusiast Interviews William A. Barton

Victorian Adventure Enthusiast Interviews William A. Barton

 

 

 

Victorian Adventure Enthusiast: Where did you grow up?

 

WAB: I grew up in Indianapolis, which was a pretty quiet place back in the
1950s–a “little” big city. Other than a year at I.U. in Bloomington, IN; a
few months in Marion and Anderson, IN; and a year in Texas (Austin, San
Antonio, and Odessa), I’ve pretty much lived all my life here in Indy. (And
I’ve never once been to the Indianapolis 500.)

 

VAE: How did you first encounter the works of H.P. Lovecraft?

 

WAB: It was through a friend who had picked up some of Lovecraft’s books in
a bargain bin–you may recall the ones where the store had torn off the
cover of the book and sent it back for a refund, but then marked the book
itself way down and sold it anyway. (I believe that was considered fraud,
but in this case, I’m glad it happened, or my friend might never have
picked up the books.) I’d turned him on to Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, so he
returned the favor by lending me the coverless Lovecrafts. Among those
first stories that I recall were “The Colour Out of Space” and the one that
was supposedly written by Harry Houdini, the exact title of which escapes
me right
now. I was immediately hooked.

(* “Under the Pyramids” aka “Entombed with the Pharaohs” or “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” May 1924~ ed.)

 

VAE: What intrigued you about HPL’s writing?

 

WAB: I think it was the joint realization that what he was actually writing
in many of his tales was science fiction (or, if you prefer, science
fantasy) and that they were all interconnected as part of a consistent
universe. It was the repeated references to the Necronomicon that first
tipped me off, followed by the repetition of many of the names of the Great
Old Ones–toss-off references mainly, but the connections resonated with
me. I’ve always been a fan of self-contained worlds or universes, such as
Isaac Asimov’s various tales, all of which take place in the same universe
at different times and places. That was one thing that first got me into
gaming, as a matter of fact. I liked the self-contained worlds of the
various board games when I was a kid and then, later, those of RPGs. And
since I’d always been more of an SF fan than one of horror or dark fantasy,
the SF elements in Lovecraft’s tales helped in the transition.

 

VAE: How long had you been gaming before you started playing Call of
Cthulhu?

 

WAB: I’d been role-playing for a couple years or so–got started in 1980
when I wrote an article for my college newspaper on adventure games. I’d
played games such as Risk for decades and had just started playing some
wargames (SPI’s War of the Ring and Avalon Hill’s Starship Troopers). I
learned of a local gaming club, and went by with another friend to get some
information from the president of the club. After the interview, my friend
and I stayed and played Starship Troopers (the intro game vs. the
Skinnies). But we noticed there was a rather lively group playing something
in one of the downstairs rooms. We wandered down and looked in, trying to
figure out what kind of game they were playing, since there was no board or
counters or anything. Turned out it was Traveller, what at the time was one
of the only SF RPGs out.
We talked with the GM and players for a while after they finished and
asked if we could set in the next time they played. So the next week, we
went back and both my friend and I had our first role-playing experience. I
went out the next week and bought all the Traveller books I could find and
began reading through them, learning the game system. We kept coming back
for several weeks, noting that the group had revolving referees (what
Traveller GMs were called), so I asked if they minded if I trying my hand
at running a game. Surprisingly, they agreed. I was pretty sure I could do
it, since I’d been in drama club and a number of plays in high school–had
written quite a few in fact, for various festivals and events–and
role-playing was a lot like improvisational acting. So I put together a
scenario using one of the published Traveller adventures (“Research
Station” something or other). I noticed, however, that I had to fill in a
lot of gaps, creating additional situations and NPCs to complete the
adventure. That was no real problem for me, being a long-time writer
(although, except for high school and college papers, unpublished at the time).
I ran a number of other Traveller adventures, stringing many together
as part of the “Twilight’s Peak” campaign, and also starting writing my
own. My first original, I called “Time Traveller” as it was a time travel
adventure back to . . . you guessed it . . . Victorian London. While there,
the adventurers ran afoul of Wells’ Martian invasion. It was fun, and I ran
it at a couple regional conventions as well. At one in Chicago, the folks
at FASA took an interest and wanted me to write it up for them as one of
their licensed Traveller adventures. Unfortunately, the publishers of
Traveller, GDW, didn’t want to see anything so different from the standard
fare, and it went by the wayside. (Although I resurrected it for a Time
Travel game I was writing for Fantasy Games Unlimited, until they went
through a consolidation period and quit publishing new games, and, of
course, I incorporated a little of it in Cthulhu By Gaslight.)
Undaunted, FASA asked me to put together another Traveller adventure,
and I wrote a campaign-length adventure called “Target Assassin.” By the
time it was finished, however, a lot of FASA’s Traveller material wasn’t
making it through GDW’s approval process. (I suspected that it was because
I and other game reviewers were praising FASA’s books as being better than
GDW’s own works–which they were. And one of GDW’s employees hassled
Tri-Tac Games at a convention because I’d just written a review favorably
comparing Tri-Tac’s FTL 2440 SF RPG to Traveller, which it deserved, and
that seemed to confirm my suspicions. But, of course, there’s no way to
really know that, and it’s all water under the bridge anyway.) Some
material from that ended up in my GURPS Space Atlas for Steve Jackson
Games, as well in my “Beware the Health Police” scenario in the GURPS Space
Adventures book.
So what has all this to do with Call of Cthulhu? Well, about the time
I was becoming disenamored of Traveller, I’d heard that Chaosium was going
to do an RPG based on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Wow! That would be the
RPG of my dreams! So I followed it closely, checking with them at
conventions about its release. And then, finally, when it came out, I
grabbed it up and starting running it at the same local game club where I’d
first seen that Traveller game a couple years before. (I think it was about
two years after I’d started that CoC finally came out. So if that’s
accurate, I’ve finally answered your question in a quite lengthy and
roundabout way.)

 

VAE: Cthulhu by Gaslight was the first Victorian Era gaming product that
most people had encountered. How did you end up writing it? Had you been
into victoriana prior to that?

 

WAB: I first got really into Victoriana through Sherlock Holmes (although
even before that I’d been a fan of Wells, Verne, and Doyle’s Lost World, in
particular, with the memorable Professor Challenger). That was a couple
years before I got into role-playing, when a class I was taking included
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes among its reading list. After reading
that first book and becoming fascinated with the characters of Holmes and
Watson, I read every other Holmes story Doyle read and then branched out
into the Holmes pastiches, such as The Seven Percent Solution and others.
The background of the stories–Victorian London mainly–also fascinated me.
I’d joined the local Sherlockian scion of the Baker Street Irregulars a few
months before getting introduced to role-playing, so as I got more into the
latter, it seemed a natural to mix the two. Hence my Time Traveller
scenario into Victorian London.
I actually approached Chaosium at the time to see if they’d be
interested in publishing a role-playing sourcebook on late Victorian
London. They had published an Arthurian sourcebook, and I was interested in
doing something of the same thing with Victorian England. I’d found in a
used bookstore an 1888 London guidebook by a fellow named Herbert Fry,
which included some incredibly detailed bird’s-eye view drawings of various
areas of London. Since it was long in the public domain, I hoped to use
them in the Victorian sourcebook. (I picked it up, by the way, for about
$3. Recently, I found another copy selling on a used book site for $120!)
Unfortunately, after viewing the proposal and some sample illustrations
from the guidebook, Chaosium decided that they didn’t have the resources to
publish such a project.

(from Herbert Fry’s 1880 London)**


Fortunately, I was a contributing editor to Steve Jackson Games’
Space Gamer at the time, having written probably hundreds of reviews and a
lot of articles (mostly about Traveller) by then. They were about to launch
a companion magazine to Space Gamer, to be called Fantasy Gamer, so I
proposed the Victorian Sourcebook idea to Aaron Allston, then editor of the
magazine. He snatched it up immediately, and so “A Gamer’s Guide to
Victorian London” appeared in issue 3 (I think it was) of Fantasy Gamer. It
was a scaled-back version of the sourcebook I’d first envisioned, but it
provided enough information for any GM to set a scenario or three in
Victorian London. It was also, I believe, the first RPG resource on the
Victorian era ever published, predating slightly the very first actual
Victorian RPG, Victorian Adventures, which was published only in England.
(I’d hoped to work on an American edition with a small game company located
here in Indiana, but that never worked out.)
In the meantime, I’d been running CoC scenarios for my local gaming
group–from Shadows of Yog-Sothoth to other ’20s-era adventures. But
although it was the setting of the game, the 1920s wasn’t really my era of
choice. So I created a scenario based in Victorian England in the
1890s–“The Yorkshire Horror”–and submitted it to Chaosium. I was
gratified to learn that they liked it, but they didn’t quite know what to
do with it, since it wasn’t set in the ’20s. They wanted to publish it, but
they asked me whether I’d write something to accompany it to help ease it
into the main game. I could, they suggested, either write a Time Travel
article, giving ways for 1920s Investigators to get back to 1890s England,
or write a background article about the Victorian era so that Keepers could
run CoC games set in England in the 1890s. Never being one who liked to
choose between two great ideas, I did both. And so Cthulhu By Gaslight
(edition the first) was born–and it all came back full circle to my
writing a Victorian sourcebook for Chaosium after all. (Actually, as it
turned out, this was my third published work for Chaosium, the first being
the ’20s scenario “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn,” in Curse of the Cthonians,
and the second some material I wrote for Chaosium’s Superworld superhero RPG.)

 

VAE: You’re still working with Chaosium via their Monograph line. Could
you explain what the Monographs are and how they work?

 

WAB: The monographs are, as I see it, kind of a throwback to the early days
of RPGs, when small companies (or individual authors) could publish small,
black and white, paperback books on a wide variety of topics and with
maximum control over their own works. The author of a monograph has total
editorial and creative control over his book, because he writes it, edits
it, lays it out, and even plugs in the art before sending it in to
Chaosium. (That total control is, of course, within reason–obviously
Chaosium wouldn’t publish anything inappropriate, no matter who wrote it
and submitted it as a monograph.) The line helps out writers who otherwise
wouldn’t see their work in print, and it works for Chaosium, as they get a
lot of creative material that they can publish without the cost and effort
that goes into their “mainline” books. The pay isn’t great–$250 per
monograph, whether you write 60 pages or (as I tend to do) 100 or more. But
it provides an outlet a lot of CoC writers wouldn’t have otherwise.
To me, the monograph line is a way to finally see a lot of things
that I put a lot of creative effort into years ago reach publication. And
that certainly beats having them sitting around gathering dust in my files,
as they have for the past couple decades, as most of them were created back
in the ’80s. My monograph Menace From the Moon, for example, was originally
devised as a scenario for the first Blood Brothers CoC book–but
unfortunately, I never managed to get it beyond the outline stage at the
time. I finally wrote it up for a book of scenarios that Gary Sumpter was
putting together, but it ended up way too long to fit in that, so I
submitted it as my first monograph. My second monograph, Return of the
Ripper, actually was written as a scenario to go into the first edition of
Cthulhu By Gaslight. “The Yorkshire Horror” was set, of course, in
Yorkshire, and Sandy Petersen asked to see something set in London as well.
So I wrote it and turned it in with the last of the Gaslight ms.
Unfortunately, it ran way too long to fit into Gaslight (some 300+
double-spaced typewritten pages). I tried to get it published separately
later, both through Chaosium and one of the CoC licensees at the time, but
neither worked out. So it sat in my files till last year. (Fortunately, my
wife was willing to enter the entire thing into the computer from my
typewritten and heavily edited–read: scrawled on almost
incomprehensibly–manuscript.) A Cthulhian Miscellany, my third monograph,
was a patchwork of materials I’d written over the years for CoC that had
never made it into print, including a number of outtakes from Gaslight.
And I’ve still got about half a dozen other unpublished scenarios in
my files–although some I’ve not yet located–plus dozens of ideas that I
hope to find the time to write up as CoC monographs eventually. (I’ve also
got a dozen or so SF scenarios originally created for Traveller, Star Trek:
The Role-Playing Game, and GURPS Space that I’m hoping to write up as SF
monographs for the new edition of Basic Role Playing Chaosium has coming
out this year.) Among this is an amalgamation of Call of Cthulhu and my own
self-published RPG, So Ya Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star! A Rock ‘N’
Role-Playing Game. (The latter is still available from me for $18pp at Bill
Barton Games, P.O. Box 26290, Indianapolis, IN 46226-0290. It includes some
Victorian references, too, including the rock band Sherlock & the CDs and
the scenario “The Sound of the Vaster Hills.” If you’ll excuse the
shameless plug.) That’ll be called Rockin’ ‘Thulhu and includes several of
my as-yet unpublished Rock Star scenarios reworked for CoC, including “Cool
Zulus By Gaslight,” in which a group of rock musicians gets transported
back to (altogether now) Victorian London. (Just can’t get away from it, can I?)

I’m currently trying to finish (and have been for months) a monograph
called Crashin’ Cthulhu vs. Shadows into Time. The first half was
originally a Vehicles for Superworld article that I wrote for the Companion
to Superworld but that didn’t make it in. (And the game was discountined
before the next book that it could be published in got off the ground.)
I’ve rewritten that for the somewhat simpler CoC system and expanded it
beyond its original scope. (I was at first trying to fit it into
Miscellany, but it grew too long for that book.) The second half consists
of an updated and expanded version of my Time Travel article from the first
two editions of Gaslight. And for good measure, I’ve thrown in a short
“Weather in CoC” article that was originally for Superworld and actually
did make it into the Companion. I hope to have that done soon. After that
will come the new edition of Gaslight, and I see that I’m already answering
the next question too soon, so I’ll jump down to that one
.

 

VAE: How soon will we see the monograph edition of Cthulhu by Gaslight?
Are there other monographs coming from you?

 

WAB: As noted above, I’m hoping to get going full swing on that soon as I
finish the Vehicles/Time Travel monograph–hopefully in the next couple
weeks. I was hoping to bring it in by the end of March, as another designer
in England is doing a monograph focusing on the rest of England, beyond
London, while I’m pretty much focusing on London itself in the new edition
of Gaslight. He’s planning on finishing by end of March (last time we
corresponded), and I’d hoped to have both ready about the same time, since
they’re going to be so complementary. But it looks as though it’s going to
take longer. Now I’m hoping for May.
This edition of Gaslight (which I’m calling Edition 2.1) will retain
much of the material in both first and second editions, although I’m
planning on expanding the coverage of London itself as well as several
other background sections on life in Victorian London, as well as the
Holmes and H.G. Wells sections. Not appearing are the Time Travel article,
which is in the other monograph now, and “The Yorkshire Horrors,” which
will appear with another Gaslight scenario in the first of what I hope to
put together as a series of Gaslight adventure books, Terror By Gaslight,
Vol. 1. I hope to finish that by late summer, early autumn, or thereabouts.
Depends on how taxing my regular job is (which, right now and for the past
several months, has been extremely so, eating up most of the time I’d
planned to put into writing my monographs). “Yorkshire” will be replaced in
Gaslight by a shorter scenario featuring Victorian London’s “other Jack”
(Spring-heeled, of course), called “The Leaping Fear.”
As for others–I have enough planned that would keep me busy for
years, if I have the time to write them all (before the stars are right and
the Old Ones return to end such folly). Among the Victorian-based are at
least three volumes of Terror By Gaslight, each with two to three Gaslight
scenarios; a Wellsian scenario I’m cowriting with Steve Dismukes, based
partly on material from his excellent Web site, combined with a Gaslight
event I ran at Gen Con last year, “The Horror on the Commons” (three
guesses as to the topic, if you even need more than one); and a book on the
British Raj in India, with another writer, called, tentatively, Secrets of
India: The Raj. I’ve also got a couple more old 1920s scenarios that I’ll
eventually get together as monographs (if I can get my wife to enter them
into the computer from my old notes); several different planned sourcebooks
for various time periods and genres, from Ancient Egypt and First Century
Israel to modern-day rock ‘n’ roll (as described previously) and the far
future. I’m running some of them at this year’s Gen Con (including one set
on Mars in the 23rd century and a Gaslight scenario at Loch Ness). After I
run it one final time at Gen Con this year, I’m also planning on writing up
my Cthulhu vs. Godzilla (Battle of the Behemoths) scenario as a
monograph–although for copyright reasons, of course, Godzilla won’t be in
the final writeup. (I’m replacing him with a generic daikaiju of my own
creation.) That’s just a sampling of what I’ve got extensive notes on. Now,
whether it’s humanly possible to actually accomplish all that, well, keep
an eye out the next several years.

 

VAE: What’s your favorite CoC bad guy or monster?

 

WAB: That’s a tough one. They’re all so good (in a bad sort of way). If I
had to pick one, I guess it would be a tossup between the Colour Out of
Space and Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar Faugn. In fact, the main reason I
wrote “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn” was to get Chaugnar Faugn into the
game, as he didn’t appear in the first several editions of CoC, and I wrote
“The Killer Out of Space” for Cthulhu Now for the same reason, to get the
Colour into the game. (The Colour has always haunted me, since it was among
the first Lovecraft stories I read. It was impressed on me even more
following an incident that occurred the night I finished the story. The
friend who’d introduced me to Lovecraft and his girlfriend and I were
driving down to Evansville, IN, that night for a rock festival the next
day. We didn’t start till amost midnight, and since there was no direct
highway from Indianapolis to Evansville, we had to take narrow, winding,
hilly country roads almost the whole way. As I was driving up one of those
hills, I suddenly saw at the top an eerie, glowing cloud of mist–the
Colour! Or at least my sleep-deprived brain shouted . . . until the car
whose headlights I was seeing in the mist drove over the top of the hill .. .)


As for “bad guys” (as opposed to monsters), my favorite is one of my
own creation: Cyrus Barker, Jr., a private eye who got too close to the
Mythos in a scenario I ran and ended up being turned into a proto-shoggoth
(a concept derived from which published CoC scenario exactly I don’t recall
at the moment). He then plagued the players in my campaign throughout
several scenarios, both in human and shoggoth form, before they finally
managed to off him (barely). He was the son of a London detective I’d
created for Return of the Ripper, also named Cyrus Barker (and based on a
minor character in one of the Holmes stories). He’s one of the NPCs
detailed in A Cthulhian Miscellany.

 

VAE: Your website also states that you’re working on a GURPS 1890s book.
Is that still in the works?

 

WAB: Ah, yes. I haven’t had time to update the Web site in a long time, as
you can no doubt tell. But the GURPS book is still in the works after a
lengthy series of interruptions and delays, both health and work related.
(These include a quadruple bypass operation I had to undergo a few years
ago and several periods at my “real” job as an editor for a major book
publisher in which it was necessary to work up to 60-70 hours a week during
crunch times. And then there was the switchover from 3rd to 4th edition
GURPS, which has required redoing the entire characters chapter.) It also
underwent a name change from GURPS Gaslight to GURPS Gothic, which required
some reworking. And it actually covers the entire Victorian period from
1837 to 1901, and not just the 1890s. The book is still “in the works,”
although there’s now talk about doing it as a series of PDF books for SJG’s
e23 store rather than as a physical book (originally paperback, then
hardback). I’m waiting to hear from the editors there as to how they want
to proceed, with the project currently (again) in limbo until I do. If it
goes ahead as the pdfs, I’m guessing it would start appearing later this
year, early next, and over the next few years. But it’ll take some
replanning and reworking to recast it that way, and I’m waiting to get word
for certain before I do anything further. (With it becoming literally one
of those “years in the making” projects.)

 

VAE: You’re also a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. What’s your favorite Holmes
story? Have you written any Holmes stories of your own?

 

WAB: Wow–favorite Holmes story? That’s really hard to say, as so many of
them are so good. (And even those that are not so good are better than a
lot of what passes for fiction sometimes.) If I had to pick one, I’d go
with (and it’s really, really close) Sign of the Four, as my favorite among
the original Doyle stories. It’s one of those that almost seems unsung as
it’s not usually among most Sherlockian’s top ten Holmes stories. Yet it’s
been made into a movie twice in the past few decades (most recently the
Hallmark Channel version, with Matt Frewer, aka Max Headroom for those of
you who still remember the ’80s). But one of those versions starred my
all-time favorite Holmes actor, the late Ian Richardson, who for my money
was the best screen Holmes ever, surpassing Basil Rathbone and Jeremy
Brett’s interpretations of the Great Detective. It also has one of the most
Cthulhian Sherlockian villains, Tonga, the Adaman Islander that I’ve always
considered a Tcho-Tcho.
Now, if you want to go into Holmes pastiches by writers other than
Doyle, the choice is easy: It’s Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds, by
Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman. I found the paperback of this book in
a corner shelf of a long-gone B.Dalton’s bookstore in Indianapolis about 30
years ago. And of all the non-Doyle Holmes stories, it’s still my favorite.
After all, it stars not only Holmes and Watson, but Professor Challenger
and, of course, Wells’ Martians! (And it was the inspiration for all my
Martian invasion RPG scenarios, many of which included Holmes as an NPC,
from Time Traveller to Gaslight.)
As far as my own writing, I’ve penned a few minor Sherlockian tales
of my own. The first was a chapter of a never-finished adventure pitting
Holmes against the Bavarian Illuminati (with the Necronomicon and some
Mythos beasties thrown in). If I ever finish it, it will be called “The
Adventure of the Cosmic Sorceror.” The second was a short-short story, “An
Elemental Adventure,” that I wrote for a writing class; it appeared in a
Sherlockian anthology published by the local Sherlockian scion I was a part
of before it got taken over by (putting it nicely) “stuffed shirts” and
became terminally boring (and I had to found a new one, The Hated Rivals on
the Surrey Shore). It featured the Necronomicon, Hastur, and Aleister
Crowley. I also wrote a series of Sherlockian plays–parodies of the
various Holmes stories–with titles such as “The Adventure of the Polky Dot
Strand,” “The Blue Tar’s Trunkful,” “The Scion of the Four,” and “The Final
Pablum.” I collected the first three into a self-published monograph and
hope to eventually put them together with the fourth play and a series of
articles I’ve written for the Hated Rivals newsletter as a print-on-demand
book, under the title “The Play’s Afoot! (And Other Sherlockian Ephemera).”
That will include a pair of “do-it-yourself” Holmes pastiches I wrote
called “The Adventure of the (Adjective) (Noun)” and “The Return of the
(Adjective) (Noun)” in which readers get to plug in various words to create
their own hilarious (hopefully) Holmes adventures. (I also just finished a
mini-story for the newsletter’s next issue, “Sherlock Holmes vs. Godzilla,”
and you can probably guess how that will turn out.)

 

VAE: Why do you think that there hasn’t been a great Holmes RPG?

 

WAB: Hmmm, that’s hard to say. Possibly because of the copyright problem
that’s persisted over the years. When I first got into Holmes in the late
’70s, the owners of the copyright would let anyone publish anything about
Holmes. Then the copyright fell to the Doyle estate, which was rather
“stodgy” in its view of what was allowable. With the copyright situation
somewhat resolved, all but the last Holmes stories published (most of The
Casebook of Sherlock Holmes), plus most of the characters and situations
are now in the public domain. That uncertainly as to what was legal, I
think, was part of the problem.
The other is that the character of Sherlock Holmes is so
overwhelmingly bigger than life, it’s difficult to have a role-playing game
in which Holmes appears that he doesn’t steal all the thunder away from the
player-characters. That’s why, although he appears in “The Yorkshire
Horror,” he has a relatively minor role. (Actually, in the original ms., he
appeared only at the end; after it left my hands, however, Holmes was
inserted earlier in the story, making a brief appearence when the party
arrived in Yorkshire. I think the idea must have been to have him lurking
in the background, as he did in The Hound of the Baskervilles, when he sent
Watson to Dartmoor and then followed in secret. But if Holmes actually had
been on the scene all that time in Yorkshire, he would have probably solved
the mystery himself, even given his noted disdain for the supernatural,
leaving little for the Investigators. In the updated version I’m doing for
Terror By Gaslight, Vol. 1, I’m deleting that scene and saving Holmes for
the big battle at the end.) So it’s difficult to incorporate Holmes as an
NPC in an RPG, and it’s even more difficult for a player to attempt to play
Holmes as a character–after all, who could measure up?
And yet, I do hope someday to design an actual Sherlock Holmes RPG
myself (if someone doesn’t beat me to it). I once proposed it to SJG as
GURPS: Sherlock Holmes, but at the time the copyright was with the Doyle
estate exclusively, so you had to get the estate’s permission to write
anything considered fictional (which would include an RPG) featuring
Sherlock Holmes. And that wasn’t likely, since one of the things the editor
at the time wanted to see was Holmes in other times and settings, such as
science fictional, something the Doyle estate was very much against. (And
then I got out of game writing–and playing– for about 10 years until SJG
contacted me about doing the Victorian GURPS, but that’s another story for
another time.) What system I’ll finally use and what format it’ll appear in
all all up in the air. (I did develop a new, yet familiar, and easily
playable system for my Rock ‘N’ Role-Playing Game that’s adaptable to other
genres. And with publishing costs being at a minimum with pdfs and POD
services, who knows?) In the meantime, I’m expanding somewhat the Holmes
section in Cthulhu By Gaslight, and he’ll also figure in the adventures
section of the GURPS Victorian book–in whatever format that finally
takes–and wherever else I can sneak him in without totally destroying the
concept. (Even in the GURPS Space Atlas there’s a Deerstalker Nebula.)

 

VAE: Pelgrane Press (under arrangement with Chaosium) has just published
“Trail of Cthulhu” which uses the Gumshoe system (created by Robin D.
Laws), Are you familiar with the system? Have you considered creating
Holmesian gaming based on it?

 

WAB: No, actually I’m not familiar with Pelgrane or the Gumshoe system, nor
“Trail of Cthulhu.” There’s just so many companies and systems out there
now, it’s impossible to keep track, even of those that fall into one of my
areas of interest. (I’m always running across things that have apparently
been around for a while but that I hadn’t heard of yet.) I know that other
systems have been used to create Cthulhian games. Hamster Press, for
example, uses Chris Engle’s Engle Matrix System in all of its games, a
couple of which are Cthulhian. (Cthulhu on Campus is one title in the
series.) It’s an interesting system–not quite role-playing, not quite
story-telling, but a unique hybred of both. He also has at least one Holmes
book using the system. There’s also the recent CthulhuTech book, which uses
another different system, but I’ve not had the chance to examine that yet.
If I was going to create Holmesian games or scenarios using a different
system, I’d probably stick to my own from Rock Star (which I’m thinking of
calling BBURPS–Bill Barton’s Unsung Role-Playing System, which plays off
the fact that I was unable to get more than barely minimal distribution for
the game when it first came out). Or I’d use one that was OGL so there
wasn’t any hassle with obtaining a license or paying a fee or whatever. But
I’d be open to checking out Gumshoe, or anything else, if anyone wants to
send me a copy (hint, hint, hint).

 

VAE: Who are some of your favorite Victorian authors (other than A.C. Doyle).

 

WAB: H.G. Wells and Jules Verne top the list. If I had to pick one all-time
favorite SF novel, it would be War of the Worlds. (Who’ve guessed?) I
remember checking out these huge Verne novels from the local library when I
was in grade school and reading them everywhere. (I have a strong memory of
carrying around and reading Mysterious Island while grocery shopping at an
A&P with my aunt.) I’d also have to list H. Rider Haggard, Bram Stoker, and
Robert Louis Stevenson, although it’s been a while since I’ve read any of
their works. Rudyard Kipling, too. I enjoy a lot of the modern “steampunk”
novels that, although not by Victorian writers, obviously, add more of an
SF touch to the Victorian era. Better add Edgar Allen Poe to that list,
too. Sometimes forget him since he was so much earlier than the others. Oh,
and Lewis Carrol. And Arthur Machen–I’ve got an unpublished CoC scenario
based on several of his stories. Better stop with those or the list will
get way too long.

 

VAE: Tell us a bit about your RPG So Ya Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star!.

 

WAB: Okay, looks as though I got ahead of the questions again, as I’ve
talked a bit about it already. The game was sort of a wish-fulfillment
fantasy, as I played on and off in a series of rock bands from high school
up to just before I got married 30 years ago (plus a few excursions more
recently, although none that lasted long). Back in the late ’80s, several
other local gamers and I got together with the idea to form a game company
to publish our own games. (One by one, the others dropped out, including a
guy who worked at a print shop and said he could print the games at cost,
making it financially feasible . . . until his boss told him he couldn’t do
it anymore.) In brainstorming for ideas, I started thinking about the
Beatles movies and the old Monkees TV show of the ’60s, and then the title
of the Byrds song, “So You Want To Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star” popped into my
head–and that was it. The germ of the game was born.
I’d written most of the game by the summer of 1988. By then, I and
the only other one left of the original group had teamed up with another
small Indiana game publisher who’d claimed to have the financial resources
to pubish the game. The owner paid for a booth at Gen Con that year . . .
but by the time the con rolled around, he still hadn’t published the game,
even though I’d turned it in months earlier. So we went to the con with a
computer-printed version and sold advance copies. With the next year, the
company owner had taken a job out of state and effectively disappeared, and
the company went down the tubes. The other remaining partner from the
original venture also dropped out, but he suggested that I go ahead and
publish the game myself. It was a scary thought–at the time, no one had
even conceived of print on demand, and pdfs were far in the future. So I
sat down and went over parts of the game that I’d not really been happy
with, redid them, and made other changes, including replacing the
first–but too long for my budget–sample scenario “Cool Zulus By Gaslight”
with the shorter rock-festival-based “Sounds of the Vaster Hills.”
By this time, Gen Con 1990 was coming up, so with my wife’s
permission, I sank most of our savings into getting Rock Star printed
up–barely in time to make the convention–and premiered it there. Sales,
unfortunately, were below my expectations. I made enough to pay for the
booth (a mere $300 in those days) and expenses, but not much else. Those
that actually bought the game were extremely enthusiastic about it, but I
guess it was just too different for a lot of gamers–not science fiction,
not fantasy, not horror, not pulp, but a mixture of them all in a modern
rock ‘n’ roll setting, wrapped in liberal doses of humor and parody, as
befitted my original inspirations (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, etc.). The
distributors, especially, didn’t seem to know what to do with it. I picked
up two distributors–one in California, one in England–and a few
retailers. Tri-Tac Games began taking it to conventions to sell for me,
including the following Gen Con, since I couldn’t afford a booth again. It
was disappointing, especially as I considered this was some of my best
work. It obviously was in some other’s opinions as well, as that Gen Con it
received the Gamer’s Choice Award for Best “Other” Role-Playing Game.
Unfortunately, that was about the time I had to switch jobs, and my
new job with a book publisher turned out to be even more demanding than my
previous editorial positions at The Saturday Evening Post and Endless
Vacation magazine. My game writing–and playing–dwindled down to little to
less to nothing over the next couple years. (My last published work then
was my scenario in the GURPS Space Adventures book.) That also left little
to no time to promote Rock Star. And so it dropped off the scene, too, and
was relegated to a stack of boxes in our basement. Over the years, I’ve
sold a few here and there at various small conventions (and at Gen Con when
it moved to Indianapolis, and I could afford to attend again) as well as
over the Internet after I got my Web site started (but still not yet
finished). Last year, Tri-Tac Games created a pdf of the game for me, and
it’s now for sale on the Tri-Tac Web site. (I created a 20-page Update and
Errata booklet for the game to go with the pdf version, which I’ve also
printed up to go with the print edition.) And I’m starting to look toward
writing up the dozen or so adventures or supplements I’d planned out years
ago, for publication now as pdfs and POD books, finally taking the game
where I’d hoped to 18 years ago, but couldn’t afford to at the time. That’s
the history of the game in a nutshell.
About the game itself (in case anyone is intrigued enough to want to
seek it out and purchase it, from me or Tri-Tac), it was designed as a game
that young, inexperienced, or even nongamers interested in the subject
matter could pick up and get into relatively easily, but with enough extras
for experienced role-players to enjoy. The game uses a familiar 3D6-based
system for generating characters (called Rockers, with the GM as the Group
Manager), with standard characteristics such as Strength, Dexterity,
Constitution, Intelligence, and so on. I’ve added a few genre-related
characteristics, such as Talent (TAL), which determines how well a rocker
plays an instrument, and Originality, which determines songwriting ability
and the ability to create original guitar licks, drum patterns, and so on.
Skills come in three levels–Amateur, Professional, and Expert–and add to
a rocker’s chances of success in rolling against characteristics. As
attempted tasks become harder, more dice are rolled against the base
characteristic + skill value. I stick to six-sided dice, again with the
idea of making it easy for newcomers, who probably have at least one game
lying around that come with D6. The game also uses variations of those: D3,
D2, and even a D5 (with 6 as zero). Players can roll up their rockers
randomly, build them with a bank of points, or take a combination approach,
depending on how the players and GM want to do it. Quirks are a big part of
the character generation process, since rock ‘n’ roll musicians are known
for being a quirky lot. Players determine what instruments their rockers
play and what past experience they’ve had, in and out of bands. Lots of
emphasis on generating fully rounded characters.
There’s also a chapter on creating bands–determining what kind of
music the group plays, what instruments and personnel it has, whether it
has any stage gimmicks, at what point on the road to superstardom it is,
and how the band advances in its rock career. Another chapter on the
“Worlds of Rock ‘N’ Roll” gives a general background of intruments; the
different rock eras, from the ’50s to (in the update) today; a rock
glossary; and various and sundry information on how to be rock musicians in
a role-playing game. There are also a series of NPCs for the GM to inflict
on the band (a redneck construction worker, a groupie, an anti-rock
crusading journalist, and others), reaction tables, and two different sets
of game mechanics: The 45 RPM version (for quick play) and the 33 1/3 RPM
version (for more detailed play). Along with the longer “Sounds of the
Vaster Hills” scenario, there are several shorter miniscenarios covering a
wide range of pop culture (from SF to westerns to gangsters to Cthulhoid).
And the book wraps up with several appendixes, from the sample band
Sherlock & the CDs to a handy D6-based Band Name Generator.
And that’s all for the mere price of $18pp! (Say you read about it
here, and I’ll throw in the Update/Errata booklet absolutely free!) See the
plug earlier in this interview for the address if you want the print copy.
Look up Tri-Tac’s Web site for the pdf.
One caveat. Although you can use the game system to create and run a
serious rock ‘n’ roll game, I wrote it very much tongue-in-cheek, with a
host of puns and bad jokes. But if you can overlook those (or maybe even
actually enjoy them), you can still run a “straight” game using the system.
Future releases are mentioned at the back of the book–and may now
actually see the light of day in the near (?) future–but FYI, these
include supplements covering the horror genre (The Rock ‘N’ Horror
Role-Playing Supplement), superheros (Rock ‘N’ Roll Super-Stars!), science
fiction (Rock Stars in Space), fantasy (Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy, of course),
spies (Number One–with a Bullet!), and whatever else I can come up with
(including, finally, “Cool Zulus By Gaslight”). I may even expand some of
the miniscenarios, such as “It Came From Tokyo Bay” into full-lengthers
down the road. (Ideas–I got a million of them.)

 

VAE: How often do you actually get to game? Do are you usually a character
or the GM/Keeper?

 

WAB: Unfortunately, my time is mostly eaten up by my demanding regular job,
and the rest is split between my wife and four cats, writing, my
Sherlockian scion (check out http://surrey-shore.freeservers.com for that),
and what little free time I can squeeze out for myself. So I don’t get to
do a lot of gaming myself anymore. Mostly, when I do, I serve as GM/Keeper
for playtests of my scenarios, and that’s mostly at conventions these days.
(I’m running seven events at Gen Con this year, four CoC and three Rock
Star/CoC/Rockin’ ‘Thulhu.) I’d love to have a regular gaming group again
(and even get to play from time to time), but getting enough people
together at one time and finding a place everyone can meet at has so far
proved an insurmountable obstacle. So for now, it’ll mostly be GM-ing at
cons and occasionally getting enough gamers together long enough to run a
playtest.

 

VAE: What would be your dream game to play?

 

WAB: Another toughie. Something Victorian, with Sherlock Holmes, the
Cthulhu Mythos and Wells’ Martians lurking around, but where space travel
and time travel are possible and rock ‘n’ roll began about a century
early–and with dinosaurs and superpowers and maybe a few cowboys and
pirates thrown in for good measure–and kaiju, too. In short, something
combining everything I’ve already written about or plan (or hope) to write
sometime in the future, if the ol’ ticker holds out long enough.

 

VAE: Any thoughts on the future of gaming?

 

WAB: Only that, as it has in the past three decades, it’s bound to go off
in directions none of us has even dreamed about, bringing new blood with
new ideas into the hobby, while retaining enough of the familiar elements
to keep oldtimers like me still hanging in there. Not all that profound a
thought, but probably accurate. (Hey–a short answer, for once!)

 

VAE: Any final thoughts?

 

WAB: Only that I wish I had the time to do nothing but think up and write
new games (and novels and stories based on some of the characters and
situations I’ve written into some of my games). If only that old ’50s show
“The Millionaire” were real and Michael Anthony would walk up to my door
with a check for one million dollars (or, more preferably, the 2008
equivalent), and I could quit worrying about paying the mortgage and the
credit card bills and all each month, wouldn’t that be great? Ah well. If I
even manage the time to write up a fraction of what I have floating in my
head (and in my copious notes) and then someone actually likes it enough to
buy it, I’ll be content.
Thanks for the opportunity to ramble on like this–I hope it won’t
prove tedious to your readers (or, if so, that you can trim it down
suitably). Although it’s in a barely finished state, keep an eye out at my
Web site (http://bill-barton-games.iwarp.com) from time to time; I hope to
clean things up there and start posting some announcements of things to
come before too long. So in the meantime, Rock On! (And, in the Victorian
vein, Sherlock On!)

 

=======================================================================

 

William A. Barton is the author/designer of the first two editions of the award-winning Cthulhu By Gaslight (as well as the forthcoming monograph Edition 2.1). His other CoC contributions include “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn”, originally published in Curse of the Chthonians, and “The Killer Out of Space”, in Cthulhu Now. His contributions to the latest editions of Call of Cthulhu include the 1890s skills, price lists, and weapons and the Mythos descriptions and spells for The Colour Out of Space, Chaugnar Faugn, and the Rat-Things, as well as assorted other tidbits. He is also the author of the M.U. monographs Menace from the Moon, Return of the Ripper, A Cthulhian Miscellany, Crashin Cthulhu vs. Shadows into Time, and several more to come.

 

Outside of Call of Cthulhu, Bill was a contributor to Chaosium’s Superworld RPG and the Companion to Superworld; co-author of the first three editions of Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Space as well as GURPS Space Atlas I (and contributor to GURPS Horror, GURPS Ultra-Tech, GURPS Aliens, and other GURPS supplements); and designer/publisher of his own RPG, So Ya Wanna Be A Rock ‘N’ Roll Star! A Rock ‘N’Role-Playing GameTM. (This award-winning RPG is available directly from Bill for $18 pp. at P.O. Box 26290, Indianapolis, IN 46226-0290; on the Web, visit http://bill-barton-games.iwarp.com the game also includes several spoofs of and references to the Mythos.) He has also served as a contributing editor for past gaming magazines such as Space Gamer and Different Worlds.

 

Bill currently works as an editor for Wiley Publishing, in Indianapolis, Indiana, a division of John Wiley & Sons (original publishers of Edgar Allen Poe’s works). Over the past 27 years, he’s worked on the editorial staffs of The Saturday Evening Post, Endless Vacation magazine, and others. He lives in Indy with his wife and four cats. Hobbies and interests (besides CoC and RPGs) include Sherlock Holmes (check out the Web site of his Sherlockian scion, The Hated Rivals on the Surrey Shore, at http://surrey-shore.freeservers.com), Victorian England, the Mythos in general, Fortean phenomena (especially Planet X and alternative archeology), Godzilla (whom he pitted against Cthulhu in several Gen Con CoC events), science fiction (especially Victorian scientific romances, a la H.G. Wells), Biblical prophecy, classic rock (listening and playing bass and guitar), parody songwriting, and others that he rarely has time for.

** to see more from London, check out Peter Berthoud’s page: http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/2012/05/birds-eye-view-maps-of-victorian-london/

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