Monday, August 13, 2012

Sarah Newton Interview, Part II

Today, FATE SF is pleased to present the second half of our interview with SF novelist and RPG designer Sarah Newton. In the first half of the interview, Sarah and I talked about many things, including her early gaming experiences and the influence of Cordwainer Smith as an influence on the Mindjammer setting. We'll resume the interview by exploring other influences on Mindjammer, and then dig deeper into a few of Sarah's other projects, including "Chronicles of the Future Earth." 

This past week, I have also been enjoying the first installment of Sarah Newton's new WW II Call of Cthulhu  series of adventures called Achtung! Cthulhu. It is one of the first offerings in Chris Birch's (yes, that's Starblazer Adventures' own Chris Birch) Modiphius imprint for RPGs. More on Achtung! Cthulhu below!

FATE SF: Were there any other books, anime, or films that were particular influences on the Mindjammer RPG?

Olaf Stapledon
SARAH: Gosh... Where to start? I should definitely cite all the cool modern science-fiction writers of the early 21st century – I love the works of Iain Banks, Peter Hamilton, Dan Simmons, and many, many more. I’ve already mentioned Olaf Stapledon – his “Star Maker” is perhaps the most profoundly moving piece of science-fiction that I've ever read, and is so mind-blowingly transhuman...

Also, recent breakthroughs in physics – membrane theory, the intelligent universe theory, Kurzweil, the Singularity – all of these concepts are only just beginning to be expressed in roleplaying. I found myself a bit frustrated before writing Mindjammer that it was hard to find a science-fiction roleplaying game which wasn’t rooted very much in the popular scifi of the 70s and 80s. Science-fiction has changed massively in the aftermath of Blade Runner and cyberpunk, and in Mindjammer I wanted to write a roleplaying game setting where you could really riff off modern science-fiction’s truly awesome concepts.

FATE SF: I also have your Basic Role Playing “Chronicles of the Future Earth: Science-Fantasy Roleplaying in Earth’s Far Future.”  Can you talk a little about the setting – your goals with it and your inspirations? It has a very Gene Wolfe feel to me. Were there other influences that were important to you?

SARAH: As a kid I grew up with the artwork of Bruce Pennington. He did the wonderful, almost spooky covers for the John Carter novels in the 70s, the Dune books, and many more. I got a New English Library copy of M. John Harrison’s “The Pastel City” in my early teens – actually I found it in a crate of my dad’s books in the attic – and Pennington’s cover absolutely enchanted me. Again the sense of strangeness, of impossibly far future civilizations where everything is different, where technology is almost magical, where everywhere you look there is a ruin or forgotten relic of the past... For years I tried to pin down the world which Pennington’s covers seemed to be suggesting in my mind – and then, in the late nineties, I started to write it down.

Cover by Bruce Pennington
Cover by Bruce Pennington

I started with this concept: “the Post-Historical Age”. In other words, in all the ages of our planet, that a time would come when so much had happened, when so much history had passed, that the vast bulk of it had been lost, forgotten, and was impossible for any single human to grasp. And that people would think: there’s nothing new in the world, everything has been done, already thought of, already invented, all the questions have been answered. That was the world which Pennington’s paintings suggested to me; a mysterious world, so old it had forgotten how it had come into existence, drifting along in a strange, dreamlike future, surrounded by ruins.

I wrote the Chronicles of Future Earth setting first for 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons, and played it for about a year; then, I began to realize that I needed something more flexible, as the technological side of the setting demanded more. I rewrote the setting for Basic Roleplaying, which was a perfect fit, and contacted Chaosium to see if they would be interested in publishing it. To my delight, they said yes!

A lot of people have called The Chronicles of Future Earth a “Dying Earth” setting. Of course it has many resonances with works by writers like Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Clarke Ashton Smith, and so on, but to be honest its more of a “Dying Humanity” setting – the Earth itself is still fine, but it’s humankind itself which is dying and decaying. And that’s the crux of the setting: something wonderful and terrible is about to happen in the Springtide Civilizations of Future Earth, and the Chronicles themselves are the story of whether or not humankind can rise to the challenge and revitalize itself once more, or whether it will succumb and drift into oblivion. I’m hoping we can all answer that question by playing the setting!

FATE SF: Is there more to come for this setting?

SARAH: Definitely! Right now I’m writing the first novel in the Chronicles of Future Earth setting, called “The Worm Within” – it deals with the events following the mini-campaign in the Chronicles RPG core book. That’s due for publication by Chaosium in 2013. At the same time, I’m working on the Chronicles of Future Earth Player’s Guide. This one is a pleasure to write. When I first wrote the manuscript for the first Chronicles supplement, I wrote over 200,000 words; the final manuscript published was about 36,000. That’s a huge reduction, and people have commented that it felt it should be much bigger. At the time Chaosium didn't know if there was an appetite for more Chronicles material – happily it seems there is, and I’m delighted to be working on a full-blown player’s guide. This one will be about twice as long as the current core book, and will be focused on everything you need as a Chronicles player – details of all the major cultures of the Venerable Autocracy, the major friendly jeniri and esteri races, the temples of the Gods of the Great Compact, and heaps of maps, histories, and background material. I’m hoping that will see the light of day during 2013. And, after that... well, after those first 200,000 words, I've been writing lots more...

FATE SF: Perhaps I am hallucinating this, but is there a connection between the two settings? I couldn’t find the reference tonight, but I could swear I read somewhere in “Chronicles” that the Urth of the setting was once part of a Commonality of worlds, a term that is also used in Mindjammer. Is Chronicles set far after the collapse of a transhumanist interstellar civilization?

SARAH: Ahhh... Wonderfully well-spotted! Let’s put it this way: when I wrote the huge backstory to the Chronicles of Future Earth setting, I got to wondering what that Commonality of Worlds must have looked like – that exceptional, almost utopian far-future civilization which fell, or destroyed itself, in a battle for the future of humankind which gave birth, over tens of millennia, to the Springtide Civilizations. And out of that wondering came Mindjammer.

So, are the Chronicles the far future of Mindjammer? To tell the truth, I don’t really know. It kind of depends on whether the “many worlds” theory is true or not. I would say the Chronicles are perhaps the possible future of Mindjammer – but so much still remains up for grabs. If we don’t play the Mindjammer setting right, then maybe it does end up in the Venerable Autocracy.

Incidentally, there is a third setting. It sits between the two, during what the Chronicles call the “Great Cataclysm”, or the “Armageddon of the Gods”. It’s an insane, apocalyptic, techno-fantastic setting where science-fiction and fantasy meet head-on. The holy book of the Chronicles setting which tells the tales of this mythical period gives the setting its name – “The Helemoriad”. One day I’ll find the ruleset for writing that...

And don’t get me started on the Third Age of Space – what happens after the Chronicles setting. I’ve only glimpsed that a few times in some seriously weird dreams... J

FATE SF: So what new projects are you working on now? I believe I saw on your blog that you are working on supplements for Leagues of Adventure, the newest Ubiquity system RPG from Triple Ace Games. I thought their first Ubiquity game, All for One: Regime Diabolique was a fantastic Three Musketeers RPG. I have run this a number of times at cons, and the players had a blast every time! Have you had much opportunity to run Leagues yet?

Art by Dim Martin
SARAH: I love to keep busy – and I certainly am at the moment! In addition to working on Mindjammer and Chronicles, I’m also writing a series of World War Two Call of Cthulhu adventures forming a campaign called “Zero Point”, for the “Achtung! Cthulhu” setting published by Chris Birch’s new imprint Modiphius.

That’s a truly awesome opportunity – I started writing fiction in a Cthulhoid World War Two a couple of years ago, and Chris and I dreamed up the setting in one of the madly creative Skype sessions we do on occasion. Chris wanted to write a FATE-based World War Two setting; I wanted to write something inspired by the so-called “Legend” of Nazi occult science which led to the Roswell story.

Out of that collision came Achtung! Cthulhu and the Zero Point campaign. The first adventure, “Three Kings”, came out in May, and I’ve just finished up the second adventure “Heroes of the Sea”, this last week, which should be out in a month or two. It’s awesome fun to write.

And then – yes, Leagues of Adventure. I’ve worked with Wiggy from Triple Ace before – I developed and edited his Avalon Somerset sourcebook for Cthulhu Britannica – and together with Rob Elliot of Triple Ace we’re regular compatriots at conventions, GenCon, etc. I love their products – Hellfrost is an awesome setting, Wonderland No More, Sundered Skies, All For One, beautifully produced and just wonderful games. So, when I heard they were working on a Victorian era RPG I was very excited – I’m a huge fan of 19th century literature and science-fiction, but had never found a Victorian era RPG which “clicked” with me – something with that rich real world historical background, but loosened up to let the extravagances of Jules Verne, HG Wells, etc, be real. Leagues of Adventure does that perfectly, so when the opportunity to write for it came up I jumped at the chance!

So I’ve been playing a lot of Leagues of Adventure lately! It’s a lovely game – the Ubiquity rules are a perfect fit, neither too heavy nor too light, with just enough crunch to keep the steampunk-ish technology anchored, and just enough narrative flair to let you really ham it up with your best Victorian accents! I’m writing a series of four adventures forming a campaign called “The Great Game”, which I’ll say no more about at the moment except to say that they’re rip-roaring adventure in true Vernian and Wellsian fashion – and they have a transhuman element, too. But that’s just me. J

FATE SF: My next to last question comes from a friend who is involved with the old School Renaissance and wants to get his toes wet with new games published in the last 20 years. What kinds of RPGs do you think would give a good introduction to the range of mechanics, settings, and play styles available to gamers today?

SARAH: Good question! And a tough one! I’m going to be pretty brutal, and recommend just four systems – there are so many cool games out there, it’s impossible to list them all, but these four encapsulate some of the coolest developments in RPGs of the past ten years or so, in my opinion. So, first I’d definitely look at FATE – any incarnation, Legends of Anglerre for fantasy, Mindjammer for science-fiction, Spirit of the Century or Kerberos Club for Victorian, Dresden Files for modern urban fantasy.

FATE would be my first recommendation – it’s all that’s good and great in RPG development in the new millennium. Then I’d recommend HeroQuest 2 – perhaps the epitome of storytelling games, it’s very different in philosophy from most RPGs, and totally worth getting your head round. I love the way the players play against the story rather than against non-player characters, and the narrative to-and-fro that entails. Definitely one to look at. Third I’d look at the new RuneQuest – and this because it’s the latest incarnation of the D100 system, and from what I’m seeing is an organic yet very inspired evolution of a system that’s been around for thirty years. It takes a tried and tested system, and infuses it with the modern RPG ethos.

And, lastly, I’d recommend the Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game; this is actually a game I haven’t played yet, and only have in PDF, but I’ve been very impressed with what I’ve read. It’s a very crunchy system, but stands somewhere on the FATE spectrum in its gaming philosophy, and is an exceptional system for showing just how sophisticated dice rolling mechanics have become. As soon as I can get a hard copy here in France I’m running it!

FATE SF: Finally, I wonder if you would be willing to comment on the following question: do you believe people who write games have a responsibility to be socially engaged?  I am thinking of recent controversies – particularly in Old School Renaissance gaming circles – about subjects like the supposed “neutrality” of depicting sexual assault in RPGs. I’m not going to ask you to weigh in on that debate specifically, although you are certainly welcome to do so here if you like. But I AM interested in questions like this: in a world where we are seeing a huge polarization in wealth, and where the environment is undergoing rapid and potentially irreversible changes , do SF game designers have a responsibility to engage with these issues? And if so, how?

SARAH: I have two answers to that question. First, no, I don’t believe game designers must engage with issues of this nature. After all, people play games for enjoyment, for socializing, to escape into a simpler cosmos where the great questions of the world are often black and white and can be readily resolved. In that respect, that kind of gaming isn’t the place for dealing with thorny moral issues – it’s about fun and relaxation.

My second answer is: as a writer, personally, I find it impossible not to let my world view infuse my writing. I’m a political animal, I love technology, conspiracy theories, and reading and thinking things which blow my mind, and I love to write about that stuff. So, I don’t feel a responsibility to write about the issues which I’m passionate about – but I’d find it hard not to! Without wanting to get heavily philosophical, I think roleplaying games are perhaps the greatest forum for collective creativity I’ve ever come across, and have molded my life and continue to shape my thoughts today – so I’m always keen to bring issues and ideas which are occupying my mind to the table and see how we all wring them out in play. I think that’s an immensely enriching experience – and awesome fun at the same time!

And, lastly, in relation to that, I think it’s also clear that the ideas we hammer out and the stories we create at the gaming table do make their way into the social “collective consciousness”. There are more gamers than ever these days – not just tabletop, but online, MMORG, console RPG, what have you. And gamers are cropping up everywhere – writing fiction, making movies, even cropping up in politics and business. We’re a legion of dice-rolling starry-eyed wonderers, and in that respect the stories we tell one another are awesome forums for roleplaying huge issues to their resolutions. I remember the 80s movie “Wargames” said “the only way to win is not to play”; well, I think we’ve disproved that one – maybe the only way to resolve the really knotty questions of life is to play.

Happy gaming – and thanks very much for letting me appear on FATE SF! J


FATE SF: Thank you, Sarah!

Here is contact information for Sarah Newton, as well as links for Mindjammer the RPG and the novel!

Sarah Newton (website:
Facebook: / Twitter: @SarahJNewton

Find out more about Mindjammer at

You can buy the Mindjammer novel in Kindle and trade paperback format at Amazon:


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