Space 1889 – Interview with Frank Chadwick

This is one of the proudest moments in the history of this blog. Andy Frankham-Allen, Editor/Author @ Untreed Reads Publishing, Cardiff Office and responsible for the Space: 1889 & Beyond series of novels arranged an interview with Frank Chadwick, creator of the original Space:1889 role playing game and founder of Games Designers Workshop, for me.

So, it is with some pride I present this interview to you:

Traveler: Thank you for this opportunity to ask you a few questions about yourself and your work, Frank. I feel rather honoured. To begin, please tell us something about Games Designers Workshop and the original Space: 1889 Role Playing Game.

Frank: Several associates and I started Game Designers Workshop in 1973. As its name suggests, it was a game publishing house, initially of historical and science fiction board games. We did a number of role playing games as well, the first of which was Traveller (designed by Marc Miller), which many people have probably heard of. In 1989 we published Space: 1889, the first Victorian science fiction role playing game. It was not called steampunk at the time as that term was not coined until several years later, although in retrospect it clearly was the first steampunk game.

Space 1889 RPG Cover

Although GDW ceased operations in the early 1990s, Space: 1889 was reprinted by Heliograph, Ltd in 2001 and is still in print from them today, along with all of its supporting material and their own Space: 1889magazine Transactions of the Royal Martian Geographical Society. A series of four audio dramas from Noise Monster Productions appeared in the mid-2000s, which Andy Frankham-Allen, the current series editor, helped write. In 2010 Pinacle Entertainment released Space 1889: Red Sands, which is a licensed RPG campaign book for their Savage Worlds game system, and which won the GenCon EN World (ENie) Best New Role Playing Supplement silver medal. Highlander Studios is coming out with a really great line of 15mm licensed miniatures and smaller scale faerial vessels, with the first packs of Martians now on sale. 2012 sees Uhrwerk Verlag (Clockwork Publishing) release a free-standing complete new edition of the Space: 1889 role playing game in German. (An English translation to follow is not out of the question.) So there is a lot going on for the game these days.


Traveler: Where can we find you on the web?

Frank: Look for my blog, Frank Chadwick’s Space 1889 ( I also hang around the Space 1889 RPG Yahoo Group.


Traveler: What got you into writing and role playing, who inspires you, are you creative in other ways?

Frank: The original edition of Dungeons and Dragons – three small brown books in a box – got me interested in role playing and I suppose fiction is a natural outgrowth of that. Refereeing a role playing adventure is clearly a form of story-telling, although you receive considerable help from the players themselves. Writing a role playing game is even more so, as it requires a lot of original thinking about world building, conflict, adventure prompts, etc. I did not begin writing fiction seriously until after GDW closed in the mid-1990s. Since then I have written almost continuously, although it’s only recently that my fiction has begun to be published. I’ve heard it said that you have to write a million words before you start writing things worth publishing. I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but in my case the word count seems about right.

Concerning inspirations, I have many, but as a frame of reference I would say that I find Wells more of an inspiration than Verne because Wells was a more audacious world-builder.

As to other outlets for my creativity, I sing in the shower.


Traveler: What came first for you (chronologically): Writing or role playing?

Frank: Writing historical games and articles, then role playing, then writing role playing games, then writing fiction.


Traveler: When did you start role playing?

Frank: 1974, when the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons came out.


Traveler: What was your first contact with steampunk?

Frank: Wow. Interesting question, especially since my work in the area predates the name! What I would call my very first contact would be as a grade school kid discovering the Classics Illustrated comic books of The Time Machine and – most importantly – The War of the Worlds. To this day, I cannot envision Martian tripods as anything other than those distinct hooded war machines emerging from the smoke on the cover of that comic book, and the image of desperate British soldiers manning hopelessly overmatched turn-of-the-century field guns, trying to hold them off, is almost haunting.

Although that tickled my interests, what excited and saturated them was the string of Victorian science fiction movies which appeared in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was still at a very impressionable age: film adaptations of Wells’ Time Machine, Island of Doctor Moreau and  First Men in the Moon, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the SeaJourney to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon, Mysterious Island, Master of the World, even Five Weeks in a Balloon, and that odd Czech film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne. The Hammer reinterpretations of the classic gothic Victorian horror romances, particularly the Frankenstein outings featuring Peter Cushing, were also major early film influences.


Traveler: What does steampunk mean to you?

Frank: I’m something of a traditionalist. While I recognize that for many people steampunk represents a distinct ethic or worldview, I do not believe that is universal or the essence of the genre. I’d have to stick with the original description of the term in K. W. Jeter’s letter to Locus magazine back in 1979 as relating to Victorian “fantasies” with an appropriate technological background. Steampunk to me is a body of speculative fiction (with related games and paraphernalia) with a background of technology as Victorians or Edwardians would have envisioned it advancing.


Traveler: Apart from Space 1889, did you work on any other role playing games?

Frank: Yes, I  also did En Garde!, Twilight 2000, 2300 ADTraveller The New Era, a number of the supporting products for the original Traveller (Mercenary, Striker, Azhanti High Lightning, and others), and did a lot of the background work/world building for Dark Conspiracy.


Traveler: How did you come up with the idea for Space 1889?

Frank: 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.


Traveler: After you had the idea, what inspired the details?

Frank: Flying ships are, of course, a natural in this genre, and I wanted a mechanism which was more robust (and less hazardous) than hydrogen gas. Basing the lifting agent on a plant which grows only in very limited parts of the Martian highlands provided an excellent motivation for colonization and tied the two worlds together. The flying Martians are, as I mentioned, inspired by the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. Everything else flowed naturally from colonialism and the romantic stories and films of the British Army (and to an extent the French Foreign Legion) in this era, as well as the historic friction points between different governments.


Traveler: What is your take on the European culture in the 1880s?

Frank: In a word, smug. A few more words: self-confident, self-satisfied, self-absorbed. Europe in the 1800s did enormous damage to the third world (before that term had meaning), but not so much through deliberate effort as by ignorance and accident. I don’t think it is a coincidence that much of the thought-provoking stories from that time which have stayed with us deal with the scales falling from people’s eyes as they begin to see the wider world for what it was rather than how it was imagined in Europe. Heart of Darkness is the most obvious and iconic example of that, but you see aspects of it all over, even in Kipling’s writings.

Beyond that, there was a belief in progress, a notion that pretty much anything could be fixed with enough brains and determination. It was a materialistic age, however, and so progress was measured almost solely in materialistic terms – industrial output, improved mechanical performance, practical scientific achievements. Even spirituality was often gauged in materialistic terms: numbers of missionaries dispatched to the “dark continent”, numbers of natives “saved” by conversion to Christianity, as if religion were an industrial concern and could be evaluated numerically. Again, some of our most enduring stories from the period are cautionary tales concerning the limits of progress, or perhaps the limits of progress measured solely in material/linear/numeric terms. Both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Wells’ Island of Doctor Moreau spring to mind.

Finally, it was an age (perhaps the last age) of the Great Individual. Scientists did not need enormous laboratories, staggeringly expensive equipment, or the support of institutional staffs to advance the frontiers of knowledge. Men working in their garages and studies significantly pushed the boundaries of electronics, biology, geology, aeronautics, optics, theoretical physics, and more. The lone inventor/scientist/engineer was a feature in fiction because his influence was omnipresent in the actual world – men like Edison, Kelvin, Faraday, Tesla. Likewise it was a time when individual explorers filled in the last blank spaces on the global map, handfuls of military leaders changed the colour of those new regions on those maps, reshaped the boundaries of the world, while adventurers and entrepreneurs made and lost and made again fortunes in new lands or with new technological products.


Traveler: What is the role of the United States in the setting?


Frank: The United States is a divided nation. The Confederacy prevailed in the American Civil War, not because of anything different done on the battlefield, but due to the death of Lincoln from typhoid fever in 1862 following a visit to federal troops during the Peninsula Campaign (as historically his son Willie did in 1862, and as did probably 100,000 soldiers, North and South) and the subsequent electoral victory of McClellan as a peace candidate over President (former vice president) Hannibal Hamlin in 1864.

By 1889 the USA is an expanding industrial and commercial power while the CSA remains essentially agrarian. Its constitution specifically prohibited support of industry or commerce, including roads and railroads, by Confederate government law or spending, with predictable results. There is growing revanchist sentiment on both sides of the border leading to tension along the border — particularly in the west — as well as acrimonious political debate internally.

In 1888 US-British relations received a major setback when a Fenian Army marshalled in the Pacific northwest and threatened an invasion of British Columbia (ostensibly as a means of forcing British withdrawal from Ireland), leading the British to sever diplomatic relations with the United States and dispatch army and naval reinforcements to Canada. The situation was defused without loss of life and diplomatic relations restored, but a lingering mutual suspicion remains. The British suspect American motives for allowing the Fenian organization to have become so strong on US territory, while the US considers British moves to have been a gross over reaction to a fairly minor incident. The fallout from the clash has caused a thaw in relations, perhaps only temporarily, between the CSA and Britain, which relations had previously been proper but distant.


Traveler: Where did you get the historical information on the various Great Powers from?

Frank; I couldn’t begin to tell you. It’s just become part of my organic background.  I have a grounding in history and have been a very dedicated student of the Crimean War for almost forty years, and to a lesser degree the other European wars of the mid-century, which are natural lead-ins to the period of the 1880s.


Traveler: How do you see the role of the various Great Powers in the setting?

Frank; Russia is the champion of traditional absolutism – continued commitment to serfdom and a dream of a pan-Slavic monarchy stretching to the Balkans and Constantinople, united by the Orthodox church.

Germany is the champion of industrial absolutism, in the person of the Kaiser and his government. It is not the enemy of change or progress, but it is an enemy of pluralism and popular self-rule. Germany remains Britain’s closest great power ally on the continent, and so long as France remains a threat Germany is reluctant to abandon this alliance. But Germany increasingly seeks its own path internationally and in the interplanetary realm, which brings it more in conflict with British interests outside the confines of Europe.

France is the champion of rapid and radical social change, popular self-government, and a toppling (by force if necessary) of the traditional centres of power: church, moneyed interests, and the hereditary aristocracy. Its support of labour unions gives it an informal but useful network of sympathizers and paid agents throughout the industrial heartlands of Europe.

Austria is a battered survivor, a reluctant champion of stasis and opponent of any change, as all change lately seems to play against Austria’s future. Rising Slavic nationalism, rising urban expectations of economic self-determination, rising middle-class expectations of self-government, a newly united, energetic, and hostile Italy to the southeast, a newly united and powerful German Empire to the north, a growing gap between Austrian industrialization and that of Britain, Germany, and France, a growing sense of discontent among what industrial workers there are – all serve as proofs of the danger of change. This makes Austria reactionary and authoritarian by desperation, not by taste.

Britain stands at the crossroads, torn between the forces of traditional inherited wealth and power on the one hand and the spirit of reform and self-determination from the emerging middle class on the other. The conflict divides the country economically, politically, and socially.


Traveler: How many series of Space 1889 & Beyond are planned?

Frank: Several. Sorry I can’t be more specific but much depends on how well these first several series are received. I can tell you that the first series has been well enough received that the second series is already being written, and it will be expanded in word count to about half again the length of season one. There are certainly more seasons after that in planning, but we’ll see.

One of the best things about Space 1889 & Beyond is the number of really good writers Andy has signed up to pen entries in the series.  If we can keep getting outstanding writers as our authors, I’d be happy for it to do through five or six seasons at least.


Traveler: Is there any place in the Space 1889 Solar System you are particular proud of?

Frank: Mars, absolutely. Mars is my favourite setting, and I think it shows. The board game which is the prequel to Space: 1889 is Sky Galleons of Mars, and the interplay between Mars and Earth is central to the unique aspects of the Space: 1889 universe. I was particularly happy that the story I was tapped for in the first series of Space 1889 & Beyond was set on Mars. It not only gave me a chance to revisit my favourite planet from this universe, but also elaborate on a few themes and have a bit of fun with the background. A Prince of Mars is, in many ways, a story of scales falling from European eyes.


Traveler: How does Space 1889 & Beyond tie in? Is the material in there considered canon for the RPG?

Frank: Yes it is. Some eyebrows have been raised concerning shipboard gravity on HMAS Sovereign, but as the first series hints, there is more to it than meets the eye, and the second series will reveal the secret behind it, which will also answer one of the burning questions about the worlds of Space: 1889 which has been out there since the first publication of the book. So Space 1889 & Beyond will actually explain part of the canon which was never explained before.


Traveler: In which other settings have you published? 

Frank: To date my only fiction publication is A Prince of Mars from Space: 1889 & Beyond (and a fair chunk of Dark Side of Luna, released next month), although I have a non-steampunk science fiction novel under contract to Baen Books (hopefully coming out in 2012) and a free-standing Space: 1889 novel (The Forever Engine) under submission. I’m currently working on Conspiracy of Silence with Andy Frankham-Allen, which opens the second series of Space: 1889 & Beyond. Aside from about a hundred published games, I have a number of historical and military non-fiction publications, of which my Desert Shield Fact Book reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list.


Traveler: Which setting is it easiest for you to write a story in?

Frank: I tried my hand at historical fiction, and although I have two complete novels and a good chunk of a third, I’m not happy with the stories. I enjoy history very much, to the point of liability. The background history overwhelmed the characters and foreground plot. So I turned to science fiction where that was, of course, less of a problem. I suspect I will return to historical fiction some day, but for now I find it easier to write steampunk and straight science fiction.


Traveler: Do you prefer writing RPG rules and adventures or fiction? Has this changed over time?

Frank: That has definitely changed over time. Thirty years ago I wrote only rules and adventures. Today I write only fiction, at least in the RPG realm. My current game design work is all in board games and miniatures rules. I may very well come back to RPG design before too long, but for now I definitely enjoy writing fiction more.


Traveler: Is there something you consider difficult about writing? 

Frank: Interestingly enough, the thing I find most challenging, and the thing I have to work hardest at, is plot. That is not to say it is the most important component of fiction – I think character is more important to the big picture. But an engaging plot which takes unexpected turns (without seeming to meander aimlessly or be simply an artefact of the author to get the characters into one contrived situation after another) is a thing of beauty and elegance, to my mind. It’s worth working hard to craft.


Traveler: Do you follow a strict schedule when you write?

Frank: Yes, or rather I try to, and I am usually successful. I set a daily word count goal and try to hit or exceed it every day. Writing is always the first thing I do as soon as I get up. I at least try to get 350-500 words down before breakfast, then after breakfast come back to it and finish up my word count goal.

My daily target rose to 1500 words a day for A Prince of Mars.  I find I had a hard time hitting that total early in the project, but as I got deeper into it I started exceeding it. Part of that was the momentum of the writing itself, but part of it also was the effect of daily practice. Since I am involved in a lot of game projects still, I do not write fiction every day. In a perfect world I would write 1500-2000 words of fiction every single day. I still have hopes of attaining that perfect world.


Traveler: Do you prefer a certain environment for writing (in the garden, kitchen, Starbucks etc.)?

Frank: A quiet home office free of distractions is my favourite, although I manage to get a fair amount of writing done in airport terminals.


Traveler: What do you do when you get stuck (i.e. writer’s block)?

Frank: I go back to one of my three “writing bibles” and re-read a chapter or two. I’m sure most writers read stacks of books on writing, and end up with a few favourites which resonate particularly strongly with them. My three bibles on writing are Bell’s Plot & Structure, Mossman’s Seven Strategies in Every Best-Seller, and Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. Other writers will have their own “bibles” which always seem to give them new ideas, no matter where they open them and no matter how many times they’ve re-read them.

If that doesn’t work, I pick up an author whose prose I particularly admire, dip in and read a chapter or two just for the sound and rhythm of the words. I like James Lee Burke’s prose a lot, Michael Chabon’s, and Raymond Chandler’s. I’ve recently re-discovered Melville and am really enjoying him, much to my surprise. Sometimes when you read a piece of prose you enjoy, you see an author doing something differently than you do, handling a scene differently, and you wonder why. You look back at your own scene with a changed perspective, start seeing alternative ways to approach it, and all of a sudden you’re writing.

Or just as often, you look back at that last scene you wrote and realize you are stumped as to how to go forward from there because what you’ve written is crap. So you tear that scene up and start over. Either way, you’re writing again.

A desperate last resort is to skip forward a scene and write what comes next. I dislike doing that, however, because I prefer to write sequentially. If I have a missing scene, everything after that feels tentative, balancing precariously on an imaginary scene which hasn’t been yet been written, and which may end up sending everything tumbling if it turns out differently than imagined. So as I said, this is literally a last gasp effort to keep putting words on paper, and sometimes it works, but I dislike it a lot and will go back and finish that blank scene as soon as possible.


Traveler: Thank you for your time. I am looking forward to reading and reviewing your upcoming A Prince of Mars.


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