Frank Talking

I am very pleased to introduce you all to Frank Chadwick, creator of the Role Playing Game Space: 1889. He joins me here to discuss his unique perspective on the success and longevity of Space: 1889.

Andy Frankham-Allen: Frank, you’re the originator of Space: 1889, and after twenty-odd years you now have a unique standing in ‘steampunk culture’. What pulled you to steampunk in the first place, and how did this lead you to create Space: 1889?

Frank Chadwick: I was drawn to steampunk before there was such a thing, or at least before the moniker existed. Although I was an avid reader as a boy, film really was the principal hook which snagged me. The series of Victorian science fiction films released in the 1950s and 1960s were a major influenceJourney to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, First Men in the Moon, The Time Machine, Master of the World, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island, and that amazing Czech film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. Interestingly enough, I never cared for the 1953 film version of The War of the Worlds, probably because they updated the story to the Twentieth Century. For me, the story was about walking tripods and British troops fighting back with Maxim guns, 18-pounders, and steam-powered ironclad rams. Hovering Martian ships with force fields just didn’t get the job done for me, although having Sir Cedric Hardwick give the opening narration was a nice touch.

A second set of influential films were those of the British colonial experience, particularly the early romanticized view of it: The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, King of the Kyber Rifles, Gunga Din, Errol Flynn’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the 1939 version of The Four Feathers, Khartoum, and of course Zulu. I’ve probably left a bunch out, and a lot of French Foreign Legion films played into this stream as well, but these were the big ones.

The Hammer films of the 1960s, particularly the Frankenstein outings were a final group of films of considerable importance. Although tame by today’s standards, there was something dark and sexy about them which played well to an adolescent in the 1960s. Beyond that, Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein broke new ground for mad scientists. No longer the leering, wild-eyed maniac, he played Frankenstein as the most logical and sensible person in the film, at least by his own lights. Cushing’s serious professional approach to the material cranked the willing suspension of disbelief quite a few notches higher as well, and there is a very important lesson to be learned in that: always respect your material.

Now, how did that lead to the game? First of all, the name. Back in the mid-1980s the board game publisher SPI used to feedback a lot of speculative titles, most of which were never produced. One such proposed title was a board game to be called Space: 1889, which (as I recall) was actually going to be a board game of an alternative World War I in the Martian colonies. Nothing ever came of the idea and so SPI dropped it, but the title tickled my imagination. All those film influences, along with a dash of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series and flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, started bouncing around up in my head.

Brass railings and steel boilers, British colonialism, the limitless possibilities and perils of science unleashed, the elegance and understated sexiness of the Victorian/Edwardian era, and flying ships – it proved an impossible combination for me to resist.

A F-A: As an aside I will definitely agree with you about the 1953 version of War of the Worlds; they seemed to be somewhat missing the point of the story, a fault that continues to this day, with the exception of Jeff Wayne’s musical version – a major inspiration on my involvement in steampunk now.

So, now we know what led you into steampunk, and from where the initial seed of Space: 1889 came. Can you tell us some more on how the initial idea led into the RPG; indeed, how did you go about creating an RPG and what kind of pitfalls were you met with initially?

FC: From the beginning my ideas on the game were ambitious, perhaps to a fault. To me the essential defining characteristic of Space: 1889 was flying ships, particularly the match-up of steam-powered armoured gunboats against wooden-hulled wind-and-muscle-powered Martian cloudships. As a result, the first product, which was the set-up for the role-playing game, was Sky Galleons of Mars, a board game with plastic playing pieces. That project was very nearly the reef upon which the entire game foundered.

At that time the tooling for plastic pieces was unbelievably expensive, really beyond the resources of Game Designers’ Workshop, my publishing house, unless many tens of thousands of copies could be sold. We had no expectation that sales would be that high, but I knew of an experimental process coming on line which allowed for much less expensive tooling – essentially a cast tool made from a master – and a contractor who had worked successfully with it before. Unfortunately, deep into the project the contractor crapped out and left us with some half-finished moulds, which I ended up driving around to several machine shops for finishing. The fact that the mould material would only respond to EDM milling complicated things, to say the least. The scramble to get those plastic pieces done seriously delayed the launch of the game and ate into my development time on the role-playing game. So the biggest pitfall came before the role-playing game itself.

As to the overall game concept, one of the first and smartest things we did was bring in the artist David Dietrich to consult as conceptual art director. For about a week we sat around the office, I talked about my concept for the game, he added ideas as well, and we brain-stormed, me with words, he with drawings. The entire look and feel of the game had as much to do with his work as anyone’s.

My organizational concept for the game was clear from the beginning. I wanted a lot of background in the product, because it was a genre unfamiliar to a lot of gamers at the time. The mechanics, on the other hand, I wanted to be as austere as possible. GDW had a reputation at the time for doing role-playing games with highly involved (some would have said ‘over-wrought’) game mechanics. I thought we needed to break that mould here and make sure the rules did not get in the way of the characters and the world. In retrospect I may have gone too light on the rules; that has certainly been a criticism of the game. But honestly, I think if I had to ere, I did so in the correct direction. The game world remains very accessible to people, and that was always my intent.

A F-A: Space: 1889 has been around for over twenty years now, and it has appeared in various forms. What have been the highlights for you personally?

FC: Winning the Origins award for the game right out of the gate was nice, but what has pleased me more is the longevity of the game. Whenever it’s mentioned online, you always have people chiming in with recollections of their campaign and how much fun they had with it. I mentioned on my blog a while back that the year it was launched the game also received a couple of awards from the Academy of Game Critics, which was a casual collection of folks in the industry who met at Origins to give out humorous awards of a negative sort. Space: 1889 won the Strontium 90 Award the year it was released for ‘the game with the shortest half-life’. The fact that over twenty years later the game is not only still around, but is growing in strength, has been a source of genuine delight.

But the real highlight so far has been writing fiction in the world. As you know, I completed a novel, The Forever Engine, early this year and am shopping it to publishers as we speak. I loved writing it as it gave me an opportunity to not only revisit the world, but add a lot of depth and texture to what was essentially a sketch presented in the original game. That novel is set on Earth. Then in May you approached me to write the fifth entry in the first season of Space: 1889 & Beyond, and doing so turned out to be a major rush! My story is the only one in the first series set on Mars, and Mars was always my favourite Space: 1889 world – as pretty much anyone who has played the game can guess. That let me re-address the relationship of Earthmen to Martians, the interplay of the different Martian races, the mechanics of how cloudships work, and a lot of smaller things. It let me add loving depth to those things without doing damage to the original material. Always respect the material.

A F-A: In 2005 Space: 1889 took its first major step beyond the bounds of RPG, with the full-cast audio plays produced by Noise Monster Productions. How did this come about? What influenced your decision to allow the property go beyond the role playing game mould?

FC: John Ainsworth of Noise Monster Productions contacted me in, as I recall, 2004 with the idea for a series of audio dramas. He already had a solid track record producing Doctor Who audio dramas, and he clearly intended these to be quality products from the very start. As I mentioned before, I was always anxious to broaden the coverage of the Space: 1889 universe, provided the product in question was of a high quality and respected the source material. There wasn’t much question of that in the case of Noise Monster, so I was happy to license them and I was delighted with the results. And, of course, the fourth release brought you to the project, so who knows where we’d be today without that?

A F-A: Indeed.

Steampunk is going through something of a revival now; as a genre it is growing from strength to strength. Space: 1889, likewise, is also going through something of a revival. Do you think these two things are linked? And if so, why do you think it’s happening now?

FC: Great question. Way back in 1990 or 1991, a hobby retailer told me what he thought was wrong with Space: 1889 as a commercial game – and he was retailer who liked it. He said, ‘Space: 1889 gamers are born, not made.’ What he meant was that for people to ‘get it’, they almost had to have grown up with the same set of films and books I did. It was hard to sell them on the aesthetic of the game without them. He wasn’t entirely correct, but there was a germ of truth in it.

The thing about a role-playing game is that it is very well suited as a gateway to a genre, but not nearly as well suited to establishing a genre. If you look at successful role-playing games, all of them enabled players to interact with a genre they already understood and enjoyed, either from literature, film, or graphic novels. At the time Space: 1889 came out, it essentially was the genre, and by itself it was tough to make headway against other genres. That it did anyway speaks volumes, I think, about the intrinsic coolness of Steampunk. Still, it was always an uphill struggle without supporting film or print entertainment support.

We tried to push the genre, in part through the Noise Monster audio dramas you were part of, and in part through several attempts at film tie-ins, each of which faltered due (interestingly enough) to market downturns at the critical point in the projects, which left the investors insufficiently liquid. (Damn that dot-com bubble!)

What made a real difference has been the gradual addition of film and fiction works from other sources; Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine were early examples. There were bumps along the way. The spectacular failures first of The Wild Wild West and then of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen temporarily sucked all the oxygen out of the room for Steampunk films. But the genre has built steadily until, within the last few years, it has finally reached critical mass and become a self-sustaining chain reaction.

So the revival of Space: 1889 is absolutely related to the explosive growth of the Steampunk movement. Before it, most Space: 1889 fans were born, not made, but those days are gone.

A F-A: Finally, moving on to the current eBook series, Space: 1889 & Beyond. As the creator of the property, what are your hopes for this series? What would you like to see it achieve?

FC: There’s a lot of talk lately about what is and isn’t Steampunk, as opposed to classic Victorian Science Fiction. Usually those conversations make me think people are arguing about a distinction without a difference, or trying to create a fault line where none really exists. Here’s what I think Steampunk ought to be about, and what Space: 1889 & Beyond should address in the coming years:

The inescapable and irresolvable conflict between progress and safety.

The friction between changing technology and established social order.

The superiority of hope over despair, and of resistance over surrender.

Most importantly, the recognition of courage as the essential prerequisite for all other virtue.

How’s that for a start?

A F-A: That’ll do nicely, and is certainly something which I, as line editor of the series, will see addressed in some form or another.

Well, thank you, Frank, for your time, and for creating Space: 1889 in the first place. Long may it live. 🙂

There’s more ‘Frank Talking’, this time with Frank and I talking about how Space: 1889 & Beyond came to be, my own take on ePublishing, and where will the property go from here. Please do go and check it out.

Space: 1889 & Beyond will be launching any day now, and is available from Untreed Reads Publishing and Frank’s own story will be released in November. Follow all the latest news on the official Facebook page.