An Interview with
Marcus Rowland is easily one of the most important figures in Victorian gaming. He's published
nine volumes for his exhaustive game, Forgotten Futures. Forgotten Futures features game
worlds based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, George Griffith and
William Hope Hodgson (among others). He's also written "The Original Flatland RPG" based on
"Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions" by Edwin A. Abbott.
He was kind enough to answer several of our queries recently...
Victorian Adventure Enthusiast: Did you start off playing Dungeons and Dragons like
most folks in the first generation of gamers?
Marcus Rowland: Yes - I had the original blue edition of Basic D&D rules from 1977 or so, and knew more or less from the outset that I wanted to be the GM, not just a player. Of course that release of the game wasn't exactly complete, so it took me a while to get up
to speed. Around 1979 I switched to AD&D and started GM-ing a lot.
VAE: Were you taken with RPGs right away or did it take you a while to warm up to them?
MR: I liked them from the start, it took me a while to find players on anything like a regular basis and get into things properly. But there were a lot of game clubs etc. in those days, once I made a few connections I was playing most Saturdays and some weekday evenings.
VAE: When did you decide to go from a game player to a game writer?
MR: I think in total about 3-4 years.
I've always liked writing, and I saw that it would be easy to write games material. In a sense an RPG article such as a character class (the first thing I sold to White Dwarf) is a lot like a technical report or an essay, and I'd learned to do both doing A-level sciences then training as a technician. But I didn't really do much until I had the full AD&D rules including the GM guide that came out in 1979.
VAE: Had you done any kind of writing prior to working on games?
MR: Other than as part of my education, I'd written a couple of articles on scientific photography which I sold to Amateur Photographer, I think that was about it.
VAE: Other than your work on Forgotten Futures what piece of game writing are you proudest of?
MR: Probably Bad Moon Rising, my Call of Cthulhu adventure in The Great Old Ones, though there were some minor problems at the start I don't now like. But it's an adventure that doesn't just railroad the characters, it steamrolls them, so maybe I shouldn't boast about it too much. It's my only games writing to win an Origins award, which at the time seemed a big deal; these days I'm not really too bothered about most game awards, they seem pretty irrelevant to writing.
VAE: Will a complete, unabridged version of "Canal Priests of Mars" ever see the light of day?
MR: I don't think so. Everyone has moved on, and I've already reused a lot of the material that was cut in one or another Forgotten Futures adventure - I think that The Ganymedan Menace in FF II owes a lot to it, for example. I don't think I even have the files any more, though I could be wrong on that.
VAE: You're a bit of a pioneer in presenting your game Forgotten Futures for free on the internet. What inspired you to make that decision?
MR: I was already interested in the shareware approach to software distribution, and had a couple of programs which were making me small amounts of money. Once I'd decided to publish my own RPG it seemed like an interesting idea to try the shareware approach. Of course in those days I had to get everything into 720k (one double-density floppy) so it meant that everything was stripped to bare essentials - ASCII text files, very small diagrams, etc.
Amazingly people seemed to like it, so I carried on, gradually building up to bigger documents, HTML, and so forth in later releases.
VAE: Why did you self publish instead of finding a publisher for Forgotten Futures?
MR: What happened originally was that around the time I was arguing with GDW over Canal Priests of Mars, and had decided that I wouldn't be taking on any more big projects for them, I had to let Chaosium down over something I'd contracted to write for them - I spent six months on it and it just wasn't working. I offered to give back the advance (I think at the time they said I was the first person who'd ever done so voluntarily) or, if they were interested, I thought that the CoC rules could be used for a non-cthulhoid Victorian SF setting - I knew that because I'd run all of the Canal Priests play-tests using CoC rules.
They weren't really interested, and I couldn't see selling anything like that to Games Workshop, so I decided to self-publish. The shareware route was just a really cheap way to do it.
VAE: Did your interest in Victorian fiction come before or after you started gaming?
MR: Long before - I loved Kipling and Wells in my teens, and around the time that Space 1889 was published happened to be taking an evening class on SF whose tutor was Colin Greenland (author of Harms Way, a lovely pseudo-Victorian SF romp with flying ships etc.) That came out about the same time, and I remember showing him the prospectus for Space 1889 - if he'd published a year or so later everyone would have said he plagiarised the setting. The following year the course tutor was Brian Stableford, the SF historian, who was into the scientific romances in a big way, and introduced me to a lot of early stuff I wouldn't have otherwise encountered.
VAE: What piece of Victorian or Edwarding fiction would you most love to adapt for a game?
MR: There's a book called "The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236" by Robert William Cole that sounds tailor-made for gaming, basically an Earth versus Alpha Centauri war story written in 1900, with space torpedoes, space mines, ultimate weapons, etc., but it's VERY rare and I have no idea if it's actually readable. I'd love to get hold of a copy and find out.
VAE: What's more important to you: that people play your game worlds or that people read the orginal source material?
MR: I hope both - I want the games to be fun and encourage people to read the fiction, and I want the fiction to be good enough to make people want to game it.
VAE: What keeps you from basing a Forgotten Futures collection on either the work of H.G. Wells or Jules Verne?
MR: Copyright problems. Wells is in European copyright until 2016 and his estate defends the copyright fairly vigorously. Verne is out of copyright, but the copyright status of his translations is a complicated mess, and most of the good translations are comparatively recent. I can't afford to spend money on royalties or lawyers, so I only work with material where the copyright is definitely clear or I can reach an agreement with the copyright holders. This happened with Kipling, for example - the first Forgotten Futures release in 1993 was based on two of his stories, then Euro copyright law changed in 1995 and he went back into copyright. For the next ten years I was including his stories by permission of the copyright holders, the National Trust, who fortunately didn't want me to pay royalties on the two stories I was using. I had to pull the plug on my original plans for Forgotten Futures X because the books I wanted to use turned out to still be in copyright in the USA, and I couldn't reach an agreement with the author's estate. That's the main reason why it's taking me so long to get the next release out.
VAE: You've now announced that Forgotten Future's X will be based on the novel "Tooth and Claw" by Jo Walton. How did this collaboration come about?
MR: Largely chance - we've known each other for many years, and I ended up taking the same train back to London with Jo and her son after a games con this summer. So I spent most of the journey complaining about the problems I'd encountered with the copyright holders etc. on my previous project. About a week later Jo contacted me and suggested that I write the Tooth and Claw game. For various reasons I owned a copy and hadn't yet read it at that point, but my flat is a total mess and it took me a couple of weeks to find the book and see what it was like. Once I'd done so I realised it'd make a wonderful RPG, and we took it from there.
VAE: What were the challenges of working with a contemporary (and living) author?
MR: It makes things a hell of a lot easier when I can say "did you really mean that?" and actually get a reply. I haven't noticed much of a down-side yet, except that I can't include the original book - there's an extract at the start, and some quotes at various points, but the whole point of the exercise is to encourage people to buy "Tooth and Claw". Currently it's out of print but readily available, there should be another paperback printing next year.
Apart from that, I know that the final game will have to be approved by Jo, but so far we've got the background and rules parts sorted without any major hassles, that just leaves the adventures, which I'm currently writing. I think that so far it's the fastest I've written one of these collections.
VAE: When working with period fiction you had the chance to let your imagination fill in all the missing details. Did you miss that while working on "Tooth and Claw"?
MR: Not really - there was plenty of stuff that Jo had mentioned without filling in every last detail, so I filled in the gaps pretty much as I always do, then sent it off for approval. There have been a few points where we disagreed, in which case I went with Jo's version, or found a compromise that worked for both of us, but on the whole it's gone really well.
Sometimes we went round and round several times for one reason and another - a good example here is the length of the day and year, and what they do to things like climate. What happened was that Jo's web site has a little article about the calendar which starts off with how the second is calculated, and (if taken as read) ends up with a day just under 67 hours long and a year of about 1.5 Earth years. I queried it, and it turned out to be a mathematical error. In the end we've changed the original basis of the calculation to more or less halve everything - the day is still fairly long, at 33hrs 20min, but the year is shorter, about 278 earth days. It sounds simple in hindsight, but getting there involved writing a spreadsheet and going through lots of variations with e.g. different numbers of days in the month and year to decide how it would work best and have the most interesting effects on climate and so forth.
VAE: Are there any other contemporary writers you'd like to work with?
MR: Tons of them, but I'd really rather not name them. I'm hoping that the Tooth and Claw RPG may open up doors for this sort of collaboration in the future, but I don't want to desert the original idea I started out with, reviving long-forgotten works, and I'm not a particularly fast writer, so I won't be able to do this again for at least a couple of years.
VAE: What happened to your "Vaguely Victorian" article?
MR: It's still on my web page, along with everything else I wrote for Odyssey Magazine. (click to be taken there)
VAE: Do you still plan on completing the Forgotten Futures collection "Curious Clubs"?
MR: I'd like to, but it was very much a fallback idea from the original plan for FF X, and I couldn't seem to build up much momentum on it. For the moment I've shelved it. I'll probably return to it in a year or two.
VAE: So, what are your publication plans for the future?
MR: I ought to have FF X out fairly early in 2008. After that, for Forgotten Futures XI I've found some 1930s SF that's out of copyright, and I think that after dragons I really want to use an SF setting, so that'll be next.
I'll also be doing a couple of small stand-alone projects to go with Forgotten Futures - one of them is a cutout paddle steamer that I'll be putting on line with FF X, the other is the "advertising supplement", a collection of Victorian / Edwardian ads, essays on their history, and adventure ideas. I've got about ten pages written, I'd like to get it to 30 pages or so and put it out as a PDF, hopefully some time next year.
I also plan to put out a Flatland supplement - it'll contain the novel "An Episode of Flatland" by Charles Hinton, rules for the very different flat world he describes, and a couple of adventures, one of which will be a Forgotten Futures crossover. I give all of the money I earn from the Flatland game to Doctors Without Borders, and it'd be nice to raise its profile a bit.
Finally, there will probably be another Diana: Warrior Princess supplement sooner or later, but I can't say when. The working title is now Dali's Angels, but I can't guarantee it will stay that way.
The Original Flatland RPG
Doctor's Without Borders