Friday, August 10, 2012

Interview With Sarah Newton, Part I

Today we begin something very special for readers of FATE SF: the first part of our feature interview with SF author and RPG designer Sarah Newton, the creator of the FATE-based RPG setting and novel Mindjammer! 

This has been a big, big week for Sarah, with the launch of the Mindjammer Press and the re-launch of her transhuman SF novel Mindjammer in both print and electronic formats!

At the end of Part I of this interview, you'll discover all the details on how to contact Sarah, learn more about the Mindjammer universe, order the Mindjammer novel - and more!

Sarah Newton

Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, including the transhuman space opera novel "Mindjammer", and the ENnie Award-winning RPG setting of the same name; the techno-fantasy RPG setting “The Chronicles of Future Earth”; and the “Legends of Anglerre” roleplaying game. She’s currently writing “Zero Point”, a series of globe-spanning World War 2 adventures for the “Achtung! Cthulhu” RPG setting, published by Modiphius; the “Great Game” campaign for the Steampunk “Leagues of Adventure” RPG from Triple Ace Games; and  “The Worm Within”, the first “Chronicles of Future Earth” novel, to be published by Chaosium, Inc, in 2013. She lives in a field in rural France, surrounded by numerous farmyard animals.

FATE SF:  Welcome to FATE SF, Sarah!  So, to get us started, what was your first gaming experience? What did you experience first as a player? What did you run as a GM? 

SARAH: Thanks very much for having me, John! And thanks too for maintaining FATE SF – this is a great site!

Art by Liz Danforth
My first gaming experience was way back in 1980, on the very last day of my first year at high school. I guess I was about 11, maybe just turned 12. It was “games day” – you got to take your toys and games to school for the last day of the year – and one kid had a copy of the brand new Advanced D&D Players Handbook – the softback edition. I remember seeing the dungeon map on the back page and being absolutely mesmerized – I was already a fan of Tolkien, John Carter, Earthsea, and so on, and the idea that you could actually play a game set in those worlds just blew me away.

I went straight home that day with a catalogue the kid gave me for “Games of Liverpool” and ordered “Buffalo Castle”, the solitaire dungeon for Tunnels and Trolls. I had no idea you needed a separate rulesbook to play it, so when it came I just kinda made up my own rules. I played the heck out of that little pink booklet! Then I went on to try writing a couple of my own, using my dad’s “Brother” typewriter. It was only when I went back to school in the fall I realized you could also play RPGs with other people! I picked up Metamorphosis Alpha, Traveller, and eventually white box D&D. By then I guess I was already a dyed-in-the-wool GM, and ran tons of sessions.

My first experience of playing RPGs was with AD&D – I had two characters, Meriosan the Giant Slayer, a paladin, and Oliosar the Thief. An unlikely combo! We played the whole of the G-D-Q series, over the course of maybe three months, including a snowbound Christmas. I had a blast – and boy did we ever kill that Lolth!

FATE SF: What kinds of RPGs do you enjoy the most? Are there particular systems that you think play to your own tastes and interests as a player and GM? Which ones?

SARAH: I like all kinds of stuff. For many years I GMed RuneQuest almost exclusively—the Chaosium version, second and third edition—and I still have a soft spot for Glorantha as a setting and the D100 system. About 10, 15 years ago, though, I found myself getting into a bit of a rut with my GMing – I was overscripting scenarios, and getting frustrated when players went “off story”. I didn’t realize myself what the problem was, until I discovered the “new generation” of narrative RPGs, and HeroQuest (then Hero Wars) and FATE games like Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures some years after. Their less rigid approach to plotting, their emphasis on saying “yes” to player narration, and their use of really cool mechanics to cater for story-based events, all absolutely revolutionized how I viewed RPGs.

These days, I love sitting down to a table and having no idea how the session is going to play out. I enjoy prepping games, but these days I take huge care to make sure the players don’t feel constrained by a fixed plot, and that I have plenty of support for winging it and coming up with events on the fly. I find that very liberating, and I’m always open to new RPG mechanics these days, looking out for the next revolutionary breakthrough. Sometimes it’s good to remind ourselves that roleplaying is a relatively new hobby, and we’re just emerging from the Model-T Ford, “you can have any color you like as long as it’s black”, stage of our hobby. Huge amounts of cool stuff await!

So, these days I still play D100 – Call of Cthulhu, the new RuneQuest 6, and Chaosium’s BRP with my “Chronicles of Future Earth” setting.

But I also play a heckuva lot of FATE – I’d say that’s my go-to system these days – and a very respectable amount of HeroQuest 2nd edition.

Recently I've also discovered Leagues of Adventure by Triple Ace Games, which is the first Victorian era RPG I’ve really warmed to. It’s very Wells-ian, and uses the Ubiquity system, which I’m finding very light, refreshing, and with some very cool quirks and side effects.

FATE SF: I noticed on your Meme Machine blog that you recently received a copy of RuneQuest 6. Now that you’ve had it for a few weeks, what do you think of it?

SARAH: It’s awesome, it really is. I haven’t received my hard copy yet, so I’m still reading the PDF and haven’t played it, but I love what I’m seeing.

When RuneQuest was “reborn” a few years back under its Mongoose incarnation, I was a bit disappointed to see that the rules system hadn’t had the radical overhaul it really needed to incorporate all the cool developments of the past ten years and the revolutionary breakthroughs which the HeroQuest system had brought to Glorantha. Lawrence Whitaker, Pete Nash, and friends have done a splendid job of bringing the rules into the 21st century—there are all kinds of neat modern mechanics, providing for cool tactical play as well as narrative features. I’m really looking forwards to playing it.

FATE SF: How did you first get involved in playing and writing for FATE?

SARAH: That’s all down to Mindjammer, my far future transhuman space opera setting. I’d been thinking about the setting for a couple of years, and had already put down some ideas for an RPG book. First I’d been trying to use an updated version of FGU’s Space Opera rules, which I still love; then I’d been trying to fit it to BRP, which would obviously make a really cool science-fiction ruleset (I’m still a proud owner of the Ringworld RPG, a thing of beauty!).

But neither ruleset really did what I wanted – I was looking for something which could model the massive cultural conflicts of the Mindjammer setting in a cool and action-packed way. I wanted players to be able to play out the large scale conflicts between cultures, but also to play individual characters – culture agents, if you will – performing missions which would themselves affect, modify, and “attack” those big cultures. In other words, a small scale (character) affecting a large scale (culture). Psy-ops, that kind of thing.

Then, one day in late 2008, I stumbled upon Spirit of the Century on DriveThru. Holy cow, I thought – this is an amazing system! If only there was a scifi version!

And there it was – only in PDF at the time, but StarblazerAdventures, written by Chris Birch and published by Cubicle 7, contained absolutely everything I needed. Not only a really inspiring piece of narrative rules in the FATE system, but also a great extrapolation of the “FATE fractal” into the scifi space, with characters, planets, starships, and organizations—I had the solution to my “cultural conflict” question right there.

I contacted Chris and Angus at Cubicle 7 within a week of grabbing Starblazer, and they were very interested in publishing Mindjammer as a setting. Still the most amazing piece of synchronicity and serendipity, and it still fills me with glee.

FATE SF: So let’s talk about Mindjammer. It is one of the very few transhuman SF RPGs out there. How do you define transhumanism?

SARAH: I’m with Nietzsche on this one: “humankind is something which must be overcome”. We’re a bunch of mad monkeys walking on the moon, inventing virtual realities, fiddling with our genes, and generally doing all kinds of incredible stuff in spite of our violent animal natures. We have one hand with its knuckles dragging on the floor, red with blood, and another reaching for the stars. It’s amazing we’ve got this far – and inspiring that we continue to succeed. But it’s obvious that as a species we’re transitional – already we’re starting to modify ourselves to be more fit for purpose. We need better brains, better bodies, longer lives, if we’re really going to fulfill the potential of the minds which evolution has seen fit to gift us with. And I think it’s so cool to be actually aware of that process.

So, transhumanism for me is a gift: it’s a mind-set which allows us to responsibly and sensibly try to decide what kind of species we want to become in the future, and then try and map out a path to get there. I can’t think of a project facing humankind that’s more exciting – and it’s an awesomely fruitful concept for roleplaying!

FATE SF: I have the first edition of Mindjammer, and I have been looking forward to the second edition of the game. The cover art is quite astounding. Is the second edition still coming out? What are your plans for it?

SARAH: Mindjammer second edition is definitely coming out – I’m writing it as we speak! After Mindjammer first edition won the ENnie back in 2010, Cubicle 7 wanted to release all the new supplements with new and original artwork. This was a wonderful opportunity, but unfortunately it set back the production schedule hugely, which was frustrating – and I’d like to apologize to all the fans out there for the delays. In the meantime I was able to release the Mindjammer novel, and also to playtest the adventures from the Mindjammer Adventures supplement at GenCon last year, but as the delays mounted I decided finally to take the setting “in-house”, so to speak.

So, this summer I’m shortly going to be announcing the formation of “Mindjammer Press”, a new imprint specifically dedicated to producing and publishing material, both RPG and fiction, for the Mindjammer setting. It’s a very exciting venture—the first publication is going to be a relaunch of the Mindjammer novel over the summer, followed by Mindjammer second edition early in 2013, and then a steady release of four supplements a year thereafter.

The new edition is going to be completely compatible with the new FATE 3 Core, published by Evil Hat – that’s one of the reasons for the timing right now, as the FATE Core is due for release very shortly. We’re in talks with Evil Hat at the moment about whether to release Mindjammer 2nd edition as a standalone game, or as a supplement to the FATE Core book, but whichever we choose, the game itself will contain oodles of new material, including new rules for starships, planets, cultures, organizations, and of course the Mindscape. It will also contain loads of new setting material, maps, technology, and more. 2013 looks to be a great year for Mindjammer!

FATE SF: While we’re at it, do you have a sense of what is going on with Starblazer Adventures’ second edition, and supplements such as The Planet Killers?

SARAH: Unfortunately not – my last contract with Cubicle 7 finished just after Christmas 2011, so I’m afraid I can’t shed any light on their production schedules at the moment. I wrote the Starblazer 2nd edition player’s guide a couple of years ago, and I believe it’s still in the queue, but beyond that I can’t say. I look forwards to seeing the new edition when it’s ready!

FATE SF: You also published a novel set in the world of Mindjammer. Can you tell us a bit about the book?

SARAH: I’ve been absolutely delighted with how the Mindjammer novel has been received – it’s been really inspiring to hear from people who’ve read and enjoyed it. It’s a very action-packed tale, true to the roleplaying setting in style and atmosphere, but at the same time it tries to say something significant about what it means to be human—the essence of transhumanism. It’s set in a cluster of worlds called Solenine, on the edge of Commonality space—a “lost colony” which has recently been rediscovered by the Commonality and is in the throes of tumultuous culture shock. The heroes are a group of “culture agents” working for SCI Force—the Commonality’s Security and Cultural Integrity Instrumentality—who stumble upon a conspiracy of interstellar proportions. I won’t say any more, except to say that what they find has implications not just for the Solenine Cluster but for the whole human race – it’s transhuman space opera on a big scale!

I had a blast writing the novel – it was something which had been fermenting in my mind for a couple of years. It’s the first of three novels, forming a trilogy story arc—although you can read “Mindjammer” as a standalone story, the second novel, “Transcendence”, which I’m writing at the moment, continues the saga of the heroes of the first. That’s scheduled for release in 2013, again by Mindjammer Press.

You can find out loads more about the novel and the setting at, including snippets of me reading from chapter one, and sample chapters.

FATE SF: I noticed that the future interstellar setting of Mindjammer includes government ministries called “Instrumentalities”. Was Cordwainer Smith with his "The Instrumentalities of Mankind" an influence on the setting you created? A favorite author?

SARAH: Well-spotted! Cordwainer Smith is one of my all-time favorite science-fiction authors, and the “instrumentalities” are a tip of the hat to his genius. He’s a fascinating character – the “father” of modern psychological warfare, a Christian, a profound scholar of Chinese culture, and a wonderfully lyrical and imaginative writer of what we now call “science-fiction”.

Together with Olaf Stapledon, to me he’s one of the few writers who really conveys just how strange the future is going to be. Science-fiction shouldn’t be about 21st century people in the far future, with 21st century attitudes, behaviors, and ideas; it should be about what the people of the far future are going to be like – what people are going to become, to evolve into. We’re back to transhumanism again – and I’d consider Cordwainer Smith to be one of transhumanism’s most poetic and inspirational proponents. If anyone out there hasn’t read him, I strongly recommend his work!

Please come back on Monday for Part II of our interview with 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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