"Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times." That's how Christopher Palmer ( at right ) and John 'Buck' Surdu describe their set of war gaming rules. In actual fact, G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is a great deal more than just another set of rules for Victorian style games. They more guidelines for recreating Steampunk genre skirmishes on the table top. Happy gamers can use miniatures from any scale they might wish to employ.
By the time you consider the various add on supplements which comprise the whole of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. core engine you end up with an extremely useful and atmospheric piece of 'kit' for the Colonial-Victorian-Steampunk gamer to enjoy. For example:
Never before have I seen a set of rules and additional game supplements which remind me of the early old school days of this hobby. Rules were merely suggested to the reader, not laid down and stamped with an official label. A gentler time when the reader was expected to contribute to the effort and add his or her own unique mark to the way they wished to interpret their game themselves.
In my mind G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. succeeds where so many other rule systems fail. It is with extreme pleasure that I have been given the privilege to interview both halves of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. enterprise: Christopher Palmer and Buck Surdu.
[Steve]: How long, exactly, has G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. existed and how did you come to create such a unique set of rules?
[Chris]: G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. was first published in 2000. A couple years before we wrote G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. several members of our gaming group, the HAWKs (Harford Area Weekly Kriegspielers) had come across the great Weird West figures that had been recently released to support the Deadlands game.
While I didn't play Wild West, I did play American Civil War so I figured I could commandeer some of the figures for use in an alternate Civil War setting. I then developed a set of rules to do this called Civil War Science.
Concurrently with this, Buck and I were finishing a set of rules for pirates called Blood & Swash, Thunder & Plunder. What was interesting about this were two things. First, it was the first collaboration between Buck and me. Second, we designed the rules in two parts, the first being a small level skirmish game where players controlled no more than four figures, and the second part being a large level skirmish game where players controlled a couple units containing ten figures. We designed it so the stats from one version were completely transferable to the other. So, you could take your main characters from the low level skirmish and transfer them out to be unit leaders in the higher level version. This foreshadowed what we would do in G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and its supplements.
So, at one point, with this background behind us, Buck and I got to talking about the possibilities of collaborating on a Victorian Science Fiction rule set with a broader scope than the ACW version I had been toying with. We're both fans of the genre and there seemed to be very few rules to cover that period. These discussions led to G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T..
[Steve]: So the whole concept was really an ongoing exchange of ideas between the two of you? So is G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. a stand-alone game, or do you need to own any or all of the additional supplements?
[Chris]: G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is a stand-alone game. It contains all the basic rules you need to play.
[Steve]: How did you and Buck team up on this venture?
[Chris]: Our collaboration on Blood & Swash, Thunder & Plunder had shown us we could work well together, and we both liked the genre.
[Buck]: Chris and I had been gaming together for several years. We have very similar perspectives, but we're different enough that the collaboration has been quite fruitful. We really feed off each other's ideas nicely.
[Steve]: It must be very rewarding to be able to bounce ideas off one another in this way. I notice you made a deliberate decision not to set G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. in a default Victorian world with a rich back mythos. Why was that?
[Chris]: I think it comes from us both being really creative. We liked scratch building and converting figures. Also, there are so many possibilities for VSF settings, we wanted the rules to appeal to a broader audience. I think we were also looking at what was out there, such as Space 1889 and Deadlands with their own distinct worlds, and we wanted to be different.
[Buck]: All that's true. In addition, it was my visceral reaction to all the fantasy and science fiction rules that insist on constraining your imagination by boxing you into their universe. I play mostly historical games, so for me Victorian science fiction or other fantasy games are a diversion. The appeal of fantasy is that you have more freedom. In many systems that specify a world, they've taken away that freedom and made it as constraining, in some cases more constraining, than historical games.
[Steve]: I couldn't agree with you more about that, which is one of the main reasons I was drawn to G.A.S.L.I.GT.H.T. in the first place. It doesn't limit you to a genre specific world of the authors' creation. Do you have a defined semi-fictitious Victorian world setting for your own club games?
[Chris]: Well, I mainly do an alternate American Civil War with steam powered vehicles and strange weaponry. Just like in the Victoria Hawkes scenario book.
[Buck]: I used my Northwest Frontier figures and set my VSF games in scenarios in which the Brits are fighting in Pakistan and India, but the Pathans have been armed with Russian technology as England and Russia play out the Great Game. This is another reason we didn't invent a G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. world. People could take whatever figures and historical period they liked, add some VSF elements, and have fun. They didn't need to start a whole new collection.
[Steve]: Well, I personally think you got it dead right with this joint decision. Is it true you plan to make a hardback edition containing G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and all the supplements in one book?
[Chris]: This is true. We are working on it at the present.
[Buck]: The intent is to combine four of our previous books with a lot of new material such as aerial fleet combat, and respond to questions and comments from our news group to create the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Compendium.
[Steve]: Woohooo! THIS will be a real visually aesthetic treat and an absolute must for gamers, especially those already into G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Can you tell me a bit about To Be Continued By G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.?
[Chris]: TBCbyGL came about when we saw that players were already taking G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. further than the Victorian period. Buck was a big fan of the movie serials from the '30s and '40s, so he especially was eager to work on a supplement that would cover this period. Because of Buck's love of the serials, we decided to set up the game so players would run connected scenarios much like those strung together stories of the time.
[Steve]: I own TBCbyGL, and I have to say it does a really good job at capturing the tone and the feel of those early serials. Can you tell us all more about The Journals of Victoria Hawkes?
[Chris]: We saw there was a need for a scenario book and I volunteered to write it. Because I had done most of my gaming in the ACW period I chose that as my setting. I decided to use Victoria Hawkes as the main character because she had already become something of a G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. mascot. When we first released the rules, we contracted with Eureka Miniatures to have a promo figure of Victoria made to hand out to the first people who bought the rules and I had been using one of those figures in all my demo games. I chose to do it in a narrative style because I didn't like scenario books that were just a collection of games with very little else to tie them together. G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is such a narrative game to begin with I thought it was the perfect fit.
[Steve]: I think your decision to do it this way is one of the main reasons I first got interested in G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Do either of your wives play G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. war games with you? I notice they both have their photographs taken alongside you at the back of the main rules book.
[Chris]: My wife likes to play G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.. She likes the narrative feel of the game.
[Buck]: My wife is very supportive of my hobby, but she doesn't usually play games. She'll play Blood and Swash pirate games from time to time. She's played a few G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. games and liked them, but gaming in general is not her cup of tea. She's more Apple to Apples than G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.
[Steve]: It's truly wonderful to see you both get to share your passion with those you love in this way. Support, even if not actually gaming, is always important. How would you defend the criticism I have heard expressed on one or two forums that G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is perhaps too open ended and demands somewhat that the readers have to put in quite a bit of effort of their own to make the rules 'come alive' for them? In this day and age of 'quick fix' rules which require very little or no thinking on the part of the readers, what steered you to keep the rules so 'loose'?
[Chris]: I don't think we need to defend that because it has been our experience that there are as many players that embrace G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. because of its ability to be what they want it to be. I think it is very much a matter of what your taste in rules is.
[Buck]: Yes, I've heard G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. described as more of a beta version of rules than a published set. This, I think, is because many are expecting the kinds of definition and constraint I described earlier in this interview. No rules are going to satisfy everyone. We were aiming at the players who are creative and like inventing their own worlds, scratch building new vehicles and weapons, and developing interesting situations. That's how we are, and we wrote rules to appeal to people like us. I think the approach has proven to be effective.
[Steve]: I personally think it is refreshing to see a rules system which demands a certain input of imagination on the part of the reader. The gamer makes each world unique and with a life of its own. Which scale do you think works best with G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.?
[Chris]: I prefer 25mm. I think it is best for conversions. That being said, I have also run G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. using 54mm. Many gamers I know like to play it in 15mm.
[Buck]: Almost all of my collection of figures is in 25 or 28mm. I began playing with miniatures because I like the aesthetics. I think 25mm gives you the best mix of figures on the table to look like a unit, big enough figures that they are distinguishable across the table, and widest selection of figures, terrain, and accessories.
[Steve]: Using a few of the charts and rules from the original game, does Adventures and Expeditions by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. actually work as a complete role play system in its own right? Either miniature or pen and paper based?
[Chris]: Yes. I have seen it done both ways with much success. In fact, I have run a few miniature based game off it which were quite enjoyable.
[Steve]: Tell me about Battles by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T.?
[Chris]: After the release of G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. we began to see players who wanted to push the limits of how many units they could squeeze on a table. The system would really bog down when you tried to push too much stuff into it. We saw one fellow, Robert Beattie, who was already figuring out ways to streamline the system on his own, so we looked at what he was doing and worked with him to come up with a system that turned into Battles by G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T..
[Steve]: Do you have more war game books planned for the future? G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. or otherwise?
[Chris]: After the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. Compendium, we plan to continue our Look, Sarge, No Charts series with a Napoleonic version.
[Steve]: How long have you been gaming?
[Chris]: I started with board war games in 8th grade, then in High School I started gaming with miniatures. This would have been late '70s to early '80s.
[Buck]: My history is pretty similar. My grandmother bought me two Civil War war games, thinking they were books. At about the same time (in 8th grade), the H.G. Wells Little Wars book was re-released in hard cover. Through 8th grade I played a lot of Little Wars in the basement and back patio. At the same time, the Charles Grant book The Wargame was published. This was a historical book, but the illustrations were done with war gaming figures. On a human-interest piece on the network news, they showed Jack Scruby and his club in California fighting Waterloo. Scruby was the father of modern hobby war gaming in the U.S. Finally, in first year Latin in high school I met a girl whose brother (who was much older than her) was a gamer and took some of us to a local war gaming convention. I can't describe the nearly religious experience of all those miniatures and a dealer's hall full of stuff to buy and bring home! All of these influences hit me within a year of each other. The rest has been history. I designed my first commercial war game as a senior in high school. I really enjoy the challenge of game design. I also take it seriously. While G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is meant to be cinematic, many of my other games have involved years of research and design.
[Steve]: You both have an interesting and rich background in the hobby I see. What's your funniest gaming memory
[Chris]: Most of them have been G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. related because so much strange stuff can happen. One is a game set in the Civil War that I ran at a convention. The Confederates have among their forces a Steam Spider ( which is a converted Wild Wild West fast food giveaway toy) controlled by an adult player, and the Union has among their forces a unit of Steampack infantry (like a rocket pack, but steam powered) controlled by a kid. So, we get to a point in the game where the kid controlling the Steampack unit asks if he can jump his leader up on the Steam Spider and assault the crew. So, I figure in my head, that's got to be difficult, jumping aboard a moving Steam Spider. I tell the player I'll let him, but he has to roll less than half his Save number. And he proceeds to do it. In addition, every time the Spider moves he needs to roll a Save to keep his footing, which he succeeds in doing. Next time he activates he says he wants to pry open the hatch. So, again, I think to myself that has to be difficult, I figure it must be locked from the inside. So, I tell him, I forget, either shoot it open or pry it open. Either way, I say he has to do it at half his attribute. Sure enough he does. The Confederate player is groaning at this point. To make a long story short, the kid proceeds to knock of the Spider's crew one by one and remain unscathed much to the delight of all the players at the table.
[Steve]: What's your most exciting game moment?
[Chris]: A player tried to take out a vehicle with a pistol at long range. He makes the shot and I tell the vehicle's owner that he needs to roll anything but a 20 to pass his Save, and of course, he rolls a 20 and fails. Then he rolls the worst possible result on the Damage Table and looses the vehicle. All to a lucky pistol shot. What really makes these games is the players. There is something about G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. that really attracts the kind of player who likes to have fun, likes the unexpected, and likes when wacky things happen. G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. game tables are always the one surrounded by laughing and cheering players.
[Steve]: I can imagine and completely agree with you about the laughing, happy, cheering people as I've seen it for myself more than a few times. What inspired you to create G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. and where did your interest in the Victorian era stem from? Most people associate the era with having its roots firmly set in semi historic Victorian Britain, The Colonies, Deepest Africa, and all that Empire stuff. Have you studied the Victorian world from a European point of view? Or does your field mostly cover the American (ACW) view of this quasi-historical period?
[Chris]: I think many things inspired us. To begin with, we were both fans of the novels of Verne and Wells and others. There were also a number of movies we liked. In fact the movie version of Wild Wild West had just come out in 1999. I also had experience in the more European version of the era through gaming. I had been an avid player of The Sword and the Flame, and had done a bit of reading to learn more about the British colonial period to support my gaming efforts. There were also a number of movies which I really liked that were set in that period.
[Steve]: If a novice wanted to go about gaming Steampunk during the American Civil War (like in the Victoria Hawkes Journals), which books or DVD's would you recommend reading or watching to get the correct feel and tone for the subject? Especially for potential gamers outside the United States?
[Chris]: Well, first I'd tell them to read the Victoria Hawkes scenario book. The scenario book does give a lot of information on our vision of how G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. games can be set up with example troop and vehicle stats. For movies, I would recommend Gettysburg for its pure historical feel. In addition, Wild Wild West, which, though set after the American Civil War, still has a lot of Civil War elements and some great machines in it. Gamers might also enjoy the original Wild Wild West television series starring Robert Conrad for inspiration. There isn't too much in books. Potential gamers might like the Lost Regiment series by William Forstchen. In this series, a Union regiment is transported to an alien world where they must make all sorts of technological adaptations to survive.
[Buck]: Movies I'd recommend are the Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Master of the Universe, Mysterious Island, and the 1960's version of War of the Worlds. I also recommend Lives of the Bengal Lancers, Real Glory (David Niven and Gary Cooper), and just about any movie with Errol Flynn for the cinematic feel of adventure. I'd also recommend the recent Sky Captain and Rocketeer movies for inspiration. The Briscoe Country Jr. series is great fun and a good source of inspiration. I'm a huge fan of the old movie serials. My favorites (all of which are available on DVD) are Undersea Kingdom, Spy Smasher, Galloping Ghost, Fighting Devil Dogs, Flash Gordon (three serials), Buck Rogers, Phantom Empire, the three Commando Cody serials (Zombies of the Stratospher, King of the Rocketmen, and Radar Men from the Moon), Dangers of the Canadian Mounted (which involves a treasure ship of Ghengis Kahn in Canada). For books, I'd recommend H. Ryder Haggard ( King Solomon's Mines), Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Bourrougs.
[Steve]: What a vast library of insight you have just provided! I am familiar with a lot of those titles (and own many), but I know I for one will start to pick off many more based on the ones you mentioned. I've always wanted to ask why is G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. in capitals with full stops between each letter?
[Chris]: Because it's an acronym. It stands for Glorious Adventures in Science Loosely Involving Generally Historical Times.
[Steve]: Oh my goodness... duh! I must be blind. I never noticed it was an acronym! *laughs*
[Chris]: Just want to say what a pleasure it's been collaborating with Buck. It's been an unpredictable but always fun and exciting road our collaborations have taken us down. Buck is a great traveling companion.
[Buck]: Working with Chris has been a great collaboration experience. I expect it to continue for many years. We're always looking for the next big thing.
[Steve]: Chris, Buck - THANK you so very much for taking time out to talk to us. It's a rare treat to get into the heads of two such amazing and innovative icons within the gaming world. It's been a real pleasure.
© 2009, Stephen A. Gilbert