Victorian Gamer archive – November 1999

Victorian Gamer archive – November 1999

Welcome to the Victorian Gamer

Ezine for Role-playing in the Victorian Era
November 1999

Table of Contents

Characters for Victorian Adventures
Biography: Nellie Bly
Technology: Paper
Game Seed:
Swiftfield’s Exotic Imports, Limited

Recipe: Turtle Soup
The Assassination Bureau
Of Tangible Ghosts and
The Ghost of the Revelator
Victorian Graphics
Letters to the Editor

From the Editor’s Desktop

The November issue is being published a little early. I am closing on a house at the end of the month and wanted to get this out of the way. As you can see, I have tried to spruce up the look of VG. I am trying to get more graphics into the issues.

There is not really a theme to this month’s issue, except that the biography of Nellie Bly ties in to the heroine of The Assassination Bureau in the Reviews, both of which are examples of journalists as characters, which is part of the topic of the Characters for Victorian Adventures Article.

I am trying to develop a list of topics for upcoming issues. A lot of ideas are floating around. I am interested in hearing from readers what subjects they would like to see research on. If there is a specific technology that you would like to see discussed, or an aspect of culture or politics you would like more information about, contact me.

This month, also begins what will probably be a continuing work in progress…a Victorian timeline. I will present a list of major events throughout the nineteenth century. There was a lot going on back then, so this should help keep some of it in order. As I have researched the dates for various discoveries, I continue to be amazed by how many things were started, discovered or invented back then. I hope you will be amazed as well.

Characters for Victorian Adventures

Coming up with a good character, or group of characters, whether it be for writing or role-playing can be difficult, especially for newcomers to a genre. In Fantasy, it is easy to fall back on some basic stereotypes, or classes in the D&D lingo. Warriors, wizards and thieves are stock-in-trade for fantasy stories. Their roles are easily defined and a character can be quickly thrown together. Other genres have similar archetypes; gunslingers, lawmen and soiled doves in the Old West, samurai, ronin and monks in the East and various easily recognizable types at various times and places in between. In Victorian gaming, identifying types is not as easy. With a little reading, a little research and a lot of imagination, there a multitude of characters that can be placed into a group ready for Victorian adventuring.

In this month’s Biography, the life of Nellie Bly is highlighted. She was a journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days, beating the record of the (fictional) Phileas Fogg. Another noted journalist was H. Stanley, a New York reporter who was sent to track down David Livingstone, who had disappeared in the heart of Africa. When Stanley, finally found Dr. Livingstone, he uttered those immortal words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.” Stanley become better known as an explorer than journalist and was sent on further expeditions by King Leopold of Belgium.

Gentleman Adventurer
Police Officer
-& Other Scientists
Secret Agent
Military Personnel
Street Urchin
Journalists and writers had to work hard to get stories that would appeal to their Victorian audiences. The newspapers, especially in the United States, went to great lengths to get sensational stories. The reporters had to develop the skills of detectives, explorers and archeologists to uncover new territory to present to the readers. A journalist can be slipped into any party of adventurers.

The Victorian period was an age of exploration and there were plenty of explorers, but generally, explorers do not start out as just “explorers,” although some certainly did explore just to explore. As stated above, Stanley and others like him were journalists, accompanying other explorers to produce exciting stories for newspapers, but what about Dr. Livingstone, the man Stanley was sent to find. Livingstone started out as a missionary. He and other missionaries felt driven to spread the word of God into the unenlightened depths of Africa. In the process, they found tribes that had never seen the white man, discovered new rivers and passageways into the continent.

Other explorers were scientists, looking to expand knowledge about the world. Biologists and botanists and more generic “naturalists,” like Charles Darwin, traveled the world looking for new species. Geographers, archeologists, geologists and others all traveled the global looking to expand their knowledge. Of course, looking at rocks and bird does not sound like a suitable past-time for a Victorian Adventure character, so this is were imagination and a few references to literature needs to come in. In Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, it is a geologist who leads the expedition through a fissure that leads down to an amazing subterranean land. Professor Challenger, a zoologist in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World leads a journalist (the narrator), Lord John Roxton, a gentleman adventurer, Dr. Summerlee, a professor, “gigantic negro named Zambo, who is a black Hercules”, a pair of Hispanic traders and assorted other retainers on an adventure in South America to a high mesa where dinosaurs have survived.

Crime and crime fighting are also themes that can be used in Victorian Adventure Gaming and provide a wealth of characters. The Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes, was an amateur with a wide range of knowledge that he devoted to fighting crime. His friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, was an ex-military doctor who tagged along for fun. Other writers used the same pattern of a clever detective aided by a friend or two. Some of these detectives were professional police or private detectives, others, many others, were amateurs from all walks of life. In a pair of books by modern-day writer, Caleb Carr (The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness), the protagonist is a psychologist (“alienist”) tracking a serial killer in 1890’s New York. He is aided by his servant, a crime beat reporter, a street urchin, a female secretary from Police Headquarters and two Jewish police detectives. On the other side of the law, there are numerous options for characters of a more criminal bent. There is the rakish gentleman rogue, a man who lives by wit and wiles at the expense of others, carrying himself as a gentlemen, perhaps momentarily strapped for cash, in need of a little investment capital for a scheme. Professor Moriarty and his henchmen serve as a model for a criminal organization. One might find a way of planning an adventure around a gang of street urchins who stumble their way into various plots.

Victorian England was had more than her fair share of young aristocrats with too much money and too much time on their hands. Some of the young men decided to broaden their horizons by traveling around the world to see what it had to offer, occasionally taking along their less well-to-do friends. Full vim and vigor and a spirit of the immortality of the British empire, they poked their noses into places probably better left uninvestigated. These Gentlemen Adventurers possessed not only wealth, but the benefits of a classical education. They knew how to ride and hunt and shoot. They were courageous and imperturbable. Such are the sort of characters to whom great adventures are drawn.

The military may seem an obvious source of characters. Nearly every year that Victorian reigned, her army was fighting in some part of the world. There are also retired military personnel to consider, with time and money, all the training and experience provided by the military, but none of the obligations to a unit. Officers stationed abroad, even during combat, often brought there wives along, so although there were a few cases of women disguising themselves as men and serving in the military, there were always women close by.

But these all seem like pretty adventurous characters anyway, people who are likely to get involved in something strange. What about less obvious choices? A in idea vaguely derived from Umberto Eco’s Focault’s Pendulum (not a Victorian novel but a great work of literature), would be a librarian, or researcher, perhaps a writer, who uncovers some intriguing piece of information. The research perhaps uncovers some ancient lore, a sinister plot, or other mystery that drives hime or her to collect a few like minded friends to investigate further, until they are so deeply invovled that the are driven to extraordinary actions foil or help the plot. A librarian or researcher should have research skills, lots of general knowledge and curiosity. It is okay to say that she or he enjoys pistol practice, archery, or boxing as a hobby. An interest in physical exercise and sport was common among the Victorians.

Another type of character that can lead naturally to forming a group and making an adventure is a merchant or traveling buyer. This is a common theme in The Arabian Nights. A merchant traveling between cities may meet up with a djinn or a lost city. This sort of thing can apply to Victorian settings as well. FOr an idea how this might play out, read the Game Seed this month.

One of my long held beliefs in story-telling and role-playing is that it is most entertaining when you take fairly ordinary people and put them into extraordinary situations. This has been successful in literature for a long time. To take a line from The Lost World, “There Are Heroisms All Round Us.” When developing a character, develop a person first, someone with a few skills, lots of talent and some character. Then have fun. Do not be afraid to let the character evolve. Real people change constantly. They learn new skills and forget old ones (although not many rule systems seem to account for forgetting – or is it that players tend to overlook tem?). With a good gamemaster, a good attitude and a good setting, you can dare to be different.




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Birography Nellie Bly (1867 – 1922)

Nellie Bly was an American woman who practically invented the field of investigative journalism with a sense of inquisitiveness and daring that had not been seen before in the newspaper industry.Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Cochrane around 1867 in Cochran’s Mill Pennsylvania. Her career as a journalist began in 1885 when, at the age of eighteen she wrote an indignant response to an editorial in the Pittsburg Dispatch. The editorial, entitled “What are Girls Good For,” argued that women best as mothers and cooks but little else. Cochrane’s letter was so impressed the editor that he hired her as a writer. Cochrane adopted the name Nellie Bly from a song by Stephen Foster.

Nellie had the resourcefulness of a private detective and the spirit of a reformer. She wrote stories on many of society’s ills, such as the slums and sweatshops. In 1887, she went to work for Joseph Pulitzer at New York World. There she carried off her first great piece of investigative journalism.

Blackwell’s Island was a notorious insane asylum, a place were people were sent and forgotten, or as Nellie described it, “a human rat-trap.” For ten days in 1888, Nellie Bly pretended to be insane and was admitted to the asylum. She suffered everything that the patients suffered and it was only with great difficulty that the newspaper was able to get her released. The resulting expose boosted the paper’s sales as planned, but it also focused reformers on an overlooked problem. Nellie went on to become a purse snatcher to get an insider’s look at New Yorks jails, and posed as a prostitute, producing an amazing story about a infamous pimp.

Nellie’s next big publicity stunt was on a grander scale. In 1889, Nellie attempted to become a “Female Phileas Fogg” by traveling around the world in less than eighty days. Traveling by steamer, train, horse, burro and rickshaw, she made the trip in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, a remarkable feat. She was welcomed him with a big parade on Broadway, fireworks and a brass band.

In 1895, Nellie Bly married business tycoon Robert Seaman, fifty years her senior, and retired from journalism. When he died in 1905, she took over management of his businesses and ran them for nearly ten years. She instituted numerous reforms to benefit the workers, including providing gymnasiums, medical facilities, libraries and tutoring services for her employees.

After retiring from business, she traveled in Europe and became trapped there when World War I broke out. Returning to what made her famous, she began reporting on the war

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It has been said that Victorians invented the idea of invention, the concept that one could create a new device that would improve life. The Victorian period was a great time of science and discovery. Some of these inventions changed history, whereas others were simply odd gadgets, footnotes of a period of creativity and imagination.

Having looked at the potential role of the journalist as a character, and gotten a glimpse into the exciting life of one particular journalist, Nellie Bly, it seems fitting to review the medium of the newspaper.

Paper itself is rather old, but spread slowly (taking centuries) from China to England and the United States. At the beginning of the 19th century, paper was becoming a valuable commodity. Small print was often used to get as much information on as small a sheet of paper as possible. Paper was made from old clothes and rags, primarily linen, but also some cotton. Automatic printing presses and the spread of literacy created a demand for paper that was difficult to meet – there just were not enough old clothes and rags to meet the demand. Paper-makers tried to use filler to stretch their supplies, using straw and grass, but even that was not enough. The chemicals they added to bleach the material and improve the quality account for the current deterioration of many 19th century documents and books.

In 1855, the London Times offered a 1000 pound prize for a new paper-making material. Many ideas were suggested. One of the oddest was Mummy Paper. Egyptomania was on the rise and some theorized that the linen used to wrap mummies could be recycled as paper. There are some unverified accounts that mummy paper was actually made in some places.

The paper solution that finally succeeded was the wood pulp paper that is in use today. The idea that wood could be used for paper was first suggested in 1719 by a French scientist, Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur, who observed the paper-like material created by North American wasps to build their nests. This was never tried, apparantly, until 1850 when a German, Friedrich Keller, actualy devised a method to make paper from wood. The paper was very poor quality and not considered practical. Two years later in England, Hugh Burgess, refined the technique by duplicating the wasps “digestion” of the paper with chemicals. An American, C. B. Tighman, further improved the formula in 1867, which was perfected in 1879 by C. F. Dahl of Sweden.

Printing presses had been around for a long time by the 19th century, but improvements were steadily made, the most obvious being the development of the steam-powered press. Through the course of the centuries, other improvements included the cylinder press, which used a revolving cylinder to press the paper against a flat printing form; the rotary press, in which both the paper and a curved printing plate were carried on cylinders; and a press that printed on both sides of a sheet of paper simultaneously (ca. 1868). In 1863 the American inventor William A. Bullock patented the first web-fed newspaper press. It printed from paper in rolls rather than individual sheets. In 1871 the American printer Richard Hoe perfected the continuous roll press. His device was capable of printing up to 18,000 newspapers in an hour.

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Swiftfield’s Exotic Imports, Limited

Although there was still a great gap between the rich and the poor in Victorian England the number of wealthy increased in the middle class. The Age of Steam was a boon to the businessmen and merchants. Many in the middle class could afford their own carriages and servants. Technology made material goods more readily available and less expensive. It therefore became more difficult for the wealthy to display their higher status in obvious ways. Enter Swiftfield’s Exotic Imports, Limited. Earnest Swiftfield deals in the rare and unusual, items that unique and immensely expensive. His teams of buyers scour the globe searching for that one unique artefact that will keep his business in the black.

The players in this game would be part of select team of individuals tasked with finding exotic items in equally exotic locations. There would be a buyer, entrusted by Mr. Swiftfield with handling the financial end of the expedition. He should have a set of merchant skills and be adept at bartering, fast-talk and other negotiating skills. He might be accompanied by a bodyguard or two, perhaps ex-military men. A polyglot might be brought along to help in communications wherever the group might go. An artist, museum curator, historian and/or archeologist should join in to help distinguish the real from the fake, the rare from the hastily made “ancient totem” to fool the “greedy white devil.” A librarian or researcher could help locate obscure references from travelers tales and help the group trace the clues from the last known whereabouts of the Holy Grail, the original text of the Necronomicon, the secret of the African steel foundries or the lost city of Shangri-La.

Traveling by steamer, train, balloon or animal, the group could make their way to Africa to search for lost relics from Timbuktu, exotic animals from the Amazon, Tibetan musical instruments made from the skulls of monks. In all these places there could be danger and excitement, intrigue and mystery to propel the party into conflict and adventure.

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Turtle dinners were, in some circles, a sign of wealth and prestige in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Giant green sea turtles were imported alive from the West Indies and were much desired by gourmets. Live turtles were quite expensive; even canned turtle cost enough that one could serve it with as sense of superiority. A whole meal could be made from the sea turtle. The belly was boiled, the back meat roasted and the fins and guts were served up cooked in the heavy sauces typical of the period. The shells were used as serving dishes and were a good sign that one was enjoying a genuine turtle meal. That is significant because mock turtle soup became a popular substitute, more affordable, but just as flavorful. Lewis Carroll is making a very Victorian joke when he has Alice meet a Mock Turtle in Wonderland. As always, if anyone tries this, let me know.

Mock Turle Soup

2 pounds mutton or lamb (with bone)
a boned calf’s head or 2 pounds of veal knuckle
1 lemon
1 carrot
1 onion
3 bay leaves
2 egg whites
1 cup Madeira or sherry

Stock: Cover the mutton or lamb with water and boil for two hours. Strain the stock and skim off the fat.
Place the calf’s head or knuckles in a saucepan and add the juice and rind of the lemon, and add the carrot, onion, bay leaves and parsley to taste. Cover it with the stock and ring it to a full boil, then simmer 2 to 3 hours. Strain the stock. Dice the meat from the calfs head and save for later. Pour the stock into the sauce pan, whisk in two egg whites and boil until the egg whites form a scum. Strain the stock through a cheesecloth, then return it to the saucepan. Add the Madeira or sherry, the diced head meat, and parsley. Bring the soup to a boil then serve.

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The Assassination Bureau
Diana Rigg, Oliver Reed, Telly Savalas
Paramount Pictures, 1968
110 min.
Buy this video today!
Whether or not this is a Victorian movie depends on when you consider the Victorian era to have ended, whether in 1901 when Queen Victoria died, or some time later, perhaps with the beginning of World War I. This move falls within that time, closer to the start of the war. It is a great movie, nonetheless, and is a fun caper well-suited for role-playing, readily adapted to a Victorian or Steampunk setting. Based on a book by Jack London and Robert Fish, it is the story of an intrepid lady reporter (Rigg), who is taked by a newspaper magnate (Savalas) to investigate the Assassination Bureau, an organization of hired killers run by its head assassin, Ivan (Reed).

Rigg offers the Bureau a large fee to assassinate someone important, their own leader. Reed accepts, deciding that this will be a great way to weed out incompetent members of the organization. The result is a wild, light-heart romp of murder, mayhem and romance through Europe, with disguises, guns, cars, exploding sausages and a plot to start a war with a zeppelin.

I saw this on cable and immediately went online to buy it.

Of Tangible Ghosts Ghost of the Revelator

L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
Tor. New York, 1994
Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator are both books I would include in the realm of Steampunk, even with my rather strict definition. They take place in a carefully thought out world that is recognizably our own but with a lot of changes in the past. One of the most significant changes is the fact that ghosts are real and are seen regularly. Ghosts generally appear when a person dies violently, and this has had an affect on murder and war. The books are full of Victorian Steampunk ideas. Steam is still the predominant mode of transportation, although electric cars and petrol cars exist. The Babbage Difference Engine was built and formed the basis of computing, although “electro-fluidic models” of Babbage Engines are being built. Dirigibles are still used for air transportation, although there is some mention of jets as well.

American and European history are dramatically different in these books that appear to be dated in the near present. The Dutch had the dominant influence along the east coast of the New World, France controlled Mexico and California and the Mormons forged a nation in the Midwest. The Austro-Hungarian Empire thrives in Europe at the expense of the other European nations

The protagonist of the stories is an ex-secret agent for Columbia (what we know as the eastern United States). He is in semi-retirement, but continues to be involved in the complex political intrigue of this alternate world where scientific research into ghosts causes violent reactions and an aggressive Austro-Hungarian Empire works to take over Europe.

These books are excellent slow-paced spy thrillers in a completely believable world. The books are full of rich detail that brings you into this world and makes it seem real. The characters are well developed and engaging. The writing is excellent and makes me want to read more of Modesitt’s work. I hope there is more to come in his Ghosts world. I would recommend these books for everyone.

This world would also make for a great game campaign setting. It is a world of political intrigue, espionage, war, steam technology, romance and style. The ghosts add a nice Gothic touch. Characters could be secret agents, soldiers, Babbage engineers and psychic researchers deeply involved in the conflicts that drive the world.

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Nellie Bly

Around the World in 72 Days
Nellie Bly’s Book : Around the World in 72 Days [ABRIDGED]
Rae Katherine’s Victorian Recipe Secrets

Letters to the Editor

Your opinions, ideas and information are welcome. Feel free to send a message or donate and article. Send it to the Editor.


Took a look at your web site…Pretty cool!..Hats off to you!…Never got a chance to do Space 1889 and was kind of sad to see such an interesting game and concept dry up and vanish. I know it is still played in some places. Don’t do much “Victorian era” RPG myself, but would like to due to the uniqueness of the times. HOWEVER; what you might be interested in doing also, is a review of some minis,of the time periods or game rules, (an example is the classic “The Sword and the Flame”). Not to mention that Dixon, Foundry also has released a 25mm mini of HRH Queen Victoria and two ladies, armed and ready for action.

As for the Halloween issue, another concept that you could play upon is the “mystic orders” within the Victorian society of the time. “The Golden Dawn”, and Crowley being the most famous, but there are also orders such as the Free-Masons, and a brief emergence of the Templars and Hospitalers, as well as “foreign influences”, ie, the “Skoptsi” cults of Russia and the Gypsies of Eastern Europe… I tend to gravitate towards Horror when I run Victorian games, and Call of Cthulhu works quite well. My players have had just as much of a trying time chasing Jack the Ripper, (another Joy for Halloween Play!) as they have the Great Olde Ones…

How’s THIS for a quick and combined adventure concept?:
Good old Jack the Ripper is doing his handiwork down in White chapel, yet unknown to the general populace, Scotland Yard KNOWS the identity of the killer, but is sworn to silence due to the fact that it actually is a MEMBER of the British Royal Family that happens to be a prominent member of an “ancient mystic occult order”, that over the years has grown in size and power, which it now includes several high ranking members of the English Government. Imagine that the players have to find the Ripper and bring him to justice without incurring the wrath of said order and creating a scandal within the Empire…

Okay compadre that is enough for me….Good luck and if you want to hear more of my ramblings and perhaps an occasional addition to your zine drop me a line.

BTW; I HAVE tried Haggis, (without the lungs), and I kind of liked it…I think it tasted like a very spiced meat loaf without the tomato sauce…The recipe ideas are great.


  • Maybe include a quick “period time line” of historical events in the Victorian Era for New Gamers to the scene.
  • Africa is a dark continent….Jungles, natives, wild exotic animals, Zulu’s and Boers, Diamonds and Tarzan…Lots of stuff to do down there…Oh did I forget to mention ancient tribal gods and cannibal tribes?…
  • Write up a section on how certain holidays were celebrated in the Victorian times, “ie” “Christmas, Halloween, Easter”…Also include some other information on things like “Guy Fawkes Day”
  • Don’t forget that although England is the center of the Victorian piece and the Sun has never set on Empire, the shadows of that sun are long and deep on it’s own close borders of Scotland and Ireland.
  • Possibly include some colorful NPC’s that could be inserted into scenarios such as a grizzled Irish Sergeant or a Pompous retired colonel. We’ve both seen our share of high ranking staff officers, and soon to be retired E-7’s and E-8’s in our Army careers….Draw off of them…It works..believe me!..*S*

Okay!…Whew!….Geez…see….you go and write up a good thing and my brain starts to tick!…Thanks a lot….


Thanks, Mike, I am glad you liked it. As a matter of fact, a timeline is in the works; I am going to try to get it online in the next couple of months. Same with Game reviews. I have a few, but if anyone else knows of Victorian Gaming rules that are published, let me know and either send in a review, or I will try to get a copy and review it myself.

And as for some of your other ideas, I am writing as fast as I can, but submissions are always welcome. No money, but you get to see your name up in lights…or pixels anyway.

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