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Sarah Newton Interview
It’s a great pleasure to welcome Sarah Newton, the author of the excellent novel and roleplaying game ‘Mindjammer’.
Jonathan Hicks: Perhaps you’d like to tell us a little bit about yourself?
Sarah Newton: Thanks for having me on the blog! Well, I’m a long-time RPGer and a writer of genre fiction. I always say I live in a field in rural Normandy surrounded by farmyard animals – Chris my blues muso husband and I have a wee smallholding and practice a semi-self sufficiency, which lets me spend time gaming and writing, and occasionally wresting sheep. I’m a Brit by birth, and a linguist by training, although I’ve moved about a fair bit; I still make it back to the Mother Country quite regularly for conventions and seeing friends and family.
JH: Tell us about your RPG history – what got you into the wonderful world of tabletop roleplaying?
SN: I’ve been an RPGer almost as long as I can remember – I got into gaming in the summer of 1980, on the very last day of my first year of secondary school, when I saw another kid showing off a softback copy of the brand new “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook”. I’d discovered Tolkien, Burroughs, and a heap of other fantasy and SF writers a couple of years earlier, and was totally receptive to this mad game where you could explore dungeons and fight monsters and win treasure. I went straight home that afternoon clutching a little paper catalogue from “Games of Liverpool” and spent all my pocket money on a £1.75 postal order to buy “Buffalo Castle”. I didn’t even know it was a solitaire adventure for Tunnels & Trolls – when it came I just made up my own rules and spent the whole summer playing it and talking about it endlessly. I even wrote two or three of my own solo dungeons using my dad’s “Brother” typewriter.
I got the T&T rules a month or two later, then rapidly discovered RuneQuest (2nd edition), Metamorphosis Alpha, Traveller (Black Box), The Fantasy Trip, Arduin, D&D (White Box), C&S (Red Book), then Gamma World, Space Opera, Ringworld, Stormbringer, Cthulhu, and lots more – more or less in that order. I was a total addict from day one – the chance to tell exciting adventure stories with friends as a game was utterly fascinating, as was designing your own worlds. I still have my first ever overland maps from that first summer wrestling with Tunnels & Trolls – enormous great sheets of parchment-like A2, with the dungeon maps and overland maps drawn at the same scale, and the room descriptions written directly on!
JH: What is it about the tabletop RPG hobby that attracts you? What do you enjoy most when playing a game?
SN: I think it’s still the sense of heroic achievement when you tell a story of adventurers succeeding against deadly and impossible odds – that’s what I love in books and movies, and the same goes for games. Sitting around a table, breathless, waiting to see if your characters are even going to survive, let alone succeed, is a real dramatic tension which is utterly compelling. Then on top of that as a GM, being able to describe and create a world that’s fascinating and exciting for the players to explore – there’s something enchanting about that.
JH: You’ve recently released the new edition of the RPG ‘Mindjammer’, a game of ‘Transhuman Science-Fiction Roleplaying in the Far Future’. It appears to be a huge and detailed setting so tell us more about it; what we can expect to find in the universe you’ve created?
SN: Mindjammer is the huge RPG project I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. It’s a complete science-fiction RPG, and a very open setting for playing “21st century” science-fiction – that is, its concepts are very modern, it’s not retro in any sense. It’s a game which reflects our 21st century take on science and science-fiction – hyper-advanced technologies, transhuman evolution, sentient machines (even starships, which you can play as characters), realistic and thoroughly “alien” aliens, planets and star systems which reflect latest theories. It uses the Fate Core engine in a way which you can really customise to your preferences – you can dial up the crunchiness and tech-i-ness if you like, or emphasise the softer and more narrative elements, or seamlessly merge the two. It comes with a default setting – the New Commonality of Humankind – but equally it’s modular, and designed to be used easily with any science-fiction setting, whether your own homebrew, an already published one, or one from your favourite book or movie.
It’s also meant to be very playable – there are guidelines throughout the book for what you can “do” in the game. Many settings are so detailed and complex that they often appear “closed”, like it’s difficult to work out what your characters can do; that’s not Mindjammer. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to ways to play the game and hooks for adventures and campaigns, and you can play all your favourite SF games: military sci-fi, investigative, exploration games, interstellar trading, intrigue and espionage, virtual worlds, alien battles, cyberpunk, and lots more.
Mindjammer’s default setting is the galaxy 15,000 years from now, and a young-but-old and expanding interstellar civilisation called the “New Commonality of Humankind”. For 10,000 years humankind was confined to Old Earth and its solar system, and the handful of worlds close to it which were accessible by slower-than-light travel. It was an ancient, highly advanced, yet ultimately stagnant civilisation. For five millennia it had sent out slower-than-light generation ships and stasis ships to the stars – many vanished without a trace, some sent back signals millennia after they’d left – but no great interstellar civilisation ever arose, and slowly humankind began to stagnate and die.
Then, two hundred years ago, just as the light seemed about to go out, faster-than-light travel was discovered. The Old Commonality set out to the stars – and found countless lost colonies, all waiting to be recontacted and rediscovered. Often massively divergent – evolved away from human norms, or genetically engineered to the hugely alien – these often ancient cultures reacted to the arrival of the New Commonality in a variety of different ways – some with extreme violence at what they perceived as “alien invaders” from a homeworld they had long forgotten had ever existed. And these lost colonies had some very alien ideas – cultural concepts, attitudes, technologies – which disturbed the ancient and somewhat decadent Commonality, and threatened to destabilise it even as it expanded.
Two hundred years later, and that’s the present-day; a Second Age of Space, filled with cultural conflict, outbreaks of violence, surprising new civilisations and rediscovered worlds, and lots of mysteries. The Commonality holds itself together by virtue of the Mindscape, a vast technological shared consciousness and data storage medium like an interstellar internet, to which all Commonality citizens are connected by neural implant. The Mindscape enables a technological form of psionics, and also allows people to upload their memories, and download and “remember” the memories of others – even of dead people, whose memories are stored in the internet. Sentient starships and other synthetics have personalities derived from the memories of dead heroes stored in the Mindscape, and you can play some very unusual characters – including those who are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human, the “transhumans” and “posthumans” of the New Commonality.
Mindjammer is a standalone Fate Core game, and compatible with all Fate Core products, but it also features hugely expanded rules, including rules for starships, vehicles, and other constructs; organisations, governments, and mega-corporations; and even entire cultures. Your characters can interact with all these; you can rise to command a fleet of sentient starships, lead a world to war, or conduct cultural manipulation missions to defuse dangerous memes and help rediscovered worlds deep in culture shock integrate into the Commonality – and pretty much anything else you can imagine doing in a science-fiction game. The game features new systems for worlds and civilisations, stellar bodies and star systems, and ecosystems and alien lifeforms, including exotic biospheres like the surfaces of neutron stars or the photospheres of red giants. You can easily use these new systems with any other SF RPG.
There’s a lot in it! You can find out more at http://www.mindjammer.com, and also download a 40+ page preview from DriveThruRPG. You can order Mindjammer – The Roleplaying Game here – the 496-page hardback ships at the end of March, and you can download the PDF immediately today.
JH: It’s been described as a ‘space opera transhuman’ setting; what was the attraction in this particular genre of science fiction?
SN: I love RPGs where characters overcome great obstacles and are transformed by the experience – I love D&D for levelling up, RuneQuest and Glorantha for becoming Rune Lords and Heroes, but I’ve often found those concepts lacking in science-fiction RPGs, even though science-fiction movies and novels are *full* of them. Our immediate future here on Earth in the 21st century is going to be profoundly challenging – we’re approaching the Singularity, we’re early transhumans already, with our links to the global massmind, instantaneous communication, virtual experiences, and soon to be biotech augmentations and self-directed evolution. I think those are really cool issues which you should be able to address in RPGs – and that’s what Mindjammer was conceived to do. Of course you can play more traditional science-fiction games if you want, but the background of Mindjammer is turbulent and chaotic change, cultural conflict, and widespread transhuman evolution – and your characters can be part of that, and even affect how the future of the human race develops.
JH: You also wrote the popular Mindjammer novel. What came first in your mind, the novel or the game?
SN: It’s a bit of a cop-out, but the setting came first. I was writing the Chronicles of Future Earth setting, which is a very, very far future science-fantasy setting, originally published by Chaosium in 2011 but which will have a 2nd edition shortly, and I was wondering about its backstory – how the human race left Earth, spread to the stars, and just what happened. Mindjammer as a setting came out of that brainstorming, then completely took over and became its own thing. Now, maybe Mindjammer is the distant past of Chronicles, or maybe Chronicles is one possible future of Mindjammer – I don’t know myself, but I love that they’re independent things with lives of their own.
The Mindjammer novel and its two sequels and the short story anthologies still to come are examples of the sorts of amazing events that can happen in the Commonality. I’m not trying to write a canon history in them; when you play Mindjammer, the Commonality is yours, and you take it where you want. The Mindjammer novels are just my version, but I think they’re also a good way to get a feel for the setting – to see the adventures your characters can have. And the novel’s characters appear as pregens in the game – you can download their character sheets at www.mindjammer.com right now!
JH: What more can we expect to see from the Mindjammer RPG in the future?
SN: All being well, plenty. As long as there’s appetite, I have a lot of products in the works – a pipeline long enough to keep me busy for several years! There are scenarios, Commonality atlases, setting and sourcebooks, and so on. We’re not intending any rules splats as such – Mindjammer is a very complete RPG already, and contains everything you need to play – but people have already been asking for more equipment and starship books, for example, so that’s certainly on the cards. In the immediate future we’re planning to release three independent scenarios: Hearts & Minds, a cultural operations scenario; Occam’s Razor, a rescue mission to a vast sentient “bioship”; and The City People, an exploration and contact mission with some *very* alien aliens. Lots more to come!
JH: The tabletop roleplaying hobby has been through a lot changes over the years and it seems that its death-knell is always sounded when newer hobbies come along, such as collectible card games and online computer games. It still seems to be able to hold it’s own, though – what do you see happening to the hobby in the future? What changes, if any, do you think will have to be made to ensure its survival?
SN: I think we’re in a new Golden Age for RPGs – the hobby is thriving, although changing rapidly. Self-publishing, digital distribution, cheaper printing, crowdfunding, and a mature fan base means that there are some top quality games out there. I think we’ll see the continued development of online tabletop gaming, with things like Roll20, Infrno, and the 3D Virtual Tabletop becoming increasingly sophisticated. Plus there are lots of possibilities for using things like Google Glass, the Oculus Rift headset, and even the Epoc brainwave reader headset for all kinds of neat applications. I think at some point too there’ll be a fusion of online gaming and LARPing, with RPGs becoming online frameworks for virtual world games. But I don’t see tabletop RPGing disappearing anytime soon – as long as we’re writing, playing, and GMing, I think it has a great future!