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Interview with Rocket Age RPG Author and Line Developer Ken Spencer

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Cubicle 7 Entertainment isn’t just any table-top role-playing game company. They’ve taken beloved intellectual properties like and turned them into award-winning role-playing games. Whether exploring the dangers of Middle-earth in The One Ring: Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild or exploring both the past and the future from a TARDIS in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space, it’s clear they know how to turn iconic source material into an excellent gaming experience.

But the table-top role-playing games they produce go beyond well-known universes and explore original ideas. Victoriana takes gamers into the seedy underbelly of  a steampunk world laced with fantasy while Qin explores late B.C. era China with some wuxia adventure.

Ken Spencer, Rocket Age Author and Line Developer

Their latest original composition for table-top role-playing games is Rocket Age. Set in an alternate 1938, it presents gamers with a world where rocket packs take you to the stars, aliens populate every planet of the solar system and endless pulp adventures are just wanting to be experienced. Rocket Age Author and Line Developer Ken Spencer took time to sit down and talk with Legendarium about his latest creation and give readers an insight into the this love letter to classic science fiction.

James Spahn: Mr. Spencer, first thanks for giving me the opportunity to speak to you about Rocket Age. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to the helm of this game line. Can you give us some insight into your background as a writer and gamer and tell our readers a bit more about the world of Rocket Age for those who aren’t familiar with the genre?

Ken Spencer: I started playing role-playing games in the fall of 1984, and had been playing simplified versions of Avalon Hill wargames (by dad was a fan and taught me the basics) for a year before that. I was hooked with the Elmore cover Dungeons and Dragons Basic Set, the classic red box. My first sci-fi game was TSR’s Star Frontiers and I quickly moved on to Traveller, Gamma World, and Battletech. I was hooked, and played every sci-fi game I could get my hands on. Although I have taken a break from sci-fi several times, most recently on a fantasy kick, I keep going back.

 My writing career, at least as an rpg writer (I have authored and co-authored a handful of academic papers), begin in the Spring of 2009 with the start of my monthly column on rpg.net, “A Bit of History“. That experience allowed me to move on to doing some work for Chaoisum (2009 BRP Adventure contest and a as yet unreleased supernatural age of piracy RPG), Alephtar (BRP Rome), Steve Jackson Games (several Pyramid Magazine articles), and  more recently the Northlands Saga setting and adventure series from Frog God Games

I pitched Rocket Age to several game companies in 2010, and Cubicle 7 was the one who wanted to give it a chance. Dominic McDowall (Cubicle 7 Entertainment CEO) liked what he saw of the first drafts, and helped guide me through the process of developing it. Rocket Age owes a lot of credit to the whole Cubicle 7 team, especially the artwork of Jon Hodgson, Paul Borne, and Scott Purdy that brings the setting to life.

Rocket Age is set less than a decade since the invention of the Tesla-Einstein-Goddard radium rocket drive. In those few short years, Earthlings have traveled to al the inner planets, Jupiter and its moons, and begun reaching out to Saturn and beyond. Rocket Age is not our world, the planets of the Solar System support life (mostly) and many have species whose intelligence is on par with that of humanity. It is an alternate history as well, a 1938 where the Second World War is not on the horizon, but other dangers threaten Earth and the Solar System as a whole.

It’s a time of massive change in both technology and culture, and not just for the people of Earth. Mars has been heavily impacted by conquest and the introduction of new ideas. There are worlds to explore, wonders to behold, and strange ruins to discover.

James: While Rocket Age clearly draws inspiration from the serials of the early 20th century such as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe serials,Armageddon 2419 A.D. short story (which introduced audiences to Buck Rogers), andthe Brick Bradford comic strips, it presents gamers with an original setting. It’s a classic idea that hasn’t been addressed by table-top games very commonly in the past few decades. Can you explain to our audience what makes Rocket Age unique and what made both you and Cubicle 7 believe this was the right time for this game to come into the public eye?

Ken: What makes Rocket Age unique is that it is not simply an homage to pulpy sci-fi, nor is it another space opera setting. Inspired by is the correct term, my approach with Rocket Age was to look at the tropes and style, the science of the mid to early twentieth century (both popular views of science and actual research and work) and start from there. This is no pastiche; I am not trying to recreate a long dead franchise. Instead, Rocket Age is an original setting using tools and inspiration from sci-fi of days long past.

As far as why we think now is the time to release Rocket Age, you might want to ask Dom about that. For me, its time to release it is finished. The long process of creation, writing, testing, editing, illustrating, layout, proofing, and all the hard labor that goes into putting an rpg out to market has been completed.

There is a little more to that though. In both gaming and other media sci-fi has taken a more military trend in the past decade or so. War makes for easier action movies, which have been the staple of big studios. There has also been a more militant mindset, at least in America, in the past thirteen years that has helped to feed the growth of military sci-fi. This is not to say that there has only been military sci-fi in recent years, but you go to a bookstore and look at the new releases, and the majority of titles are likely to be based around war. There is nothing wrong with this, but there is much more to sci-fi. Rocket Age, while it does contain military conflict, is mainly a game about exploration and adventure.

You can go through an entire serial and have an exciting time without having to resort to violence. This is one of the things I wanted to present, sci-fi based on adventure. For my money it’s far more exciting to have the player characters trying to stop their ship from crashing, hanging off of a jungle cliff, or racing through the ruins of a ruined city. This is not to say that Rocket Age is combat shy, not at all, and you can build a very competent character or an exciting series around violent conflicts. In fact, every planet has a theme, and Mars is conflict, often violent conflict. If you are a fan of military sci-fi, Rocket Age has that in it, its just not the end all and be all of the setting.

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James: Rocket Age uses the Vortex System for conflict resolution. This system was popularized by Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. But in keeping with traditional Whovian style, Vortex was used in DW: AITAS to put the emphasis on the cerebral and social aspects of resolving conflict. Given that sci-fi pulp has a tradition of being “two-fisted,” what made you decide to go with the Vortex System and what were some of the changes made from the original Doctor Who to help maintain the tone and feel of Rocket Age?

Ken: First of all, the old serials were not nearly as combat heavy as popular media is today. Two-fisted is a fair descriptor of many of the fights, for some reason people armed with laser blasters did not often go for their guns right away (and many of the older Westerns feature folks fist fighting before any hog iron comes out). The drawing of a gun tended to signal that the fight was over and one side had captured the other.

A lot of the danger was more environmental in nature. Falling rocks, alien worlds with exotic conditions or life, space accidents, that sort of thing. The Vortex System allows for your more physical characters to be both action ready and combat ready. Coordination +Athletics is your basic reaction roll to dodge (if you can dodge a RAY beam, you can dodge a ball). It is also what you need to leap over the chasm that opens beneath you as a sky island breaks apart in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter, to climb a three hundred meter tree in the Venusian jungle, or outrun a horde of angry wild bahmoots on Mars (pro tip: you are likely not outrunning those bahmoots, better spend a Story Point and Do or Die the roll). Coordination +Marksman is the standard roll to hit something with a ranged weapon. You can use either Coordination or Strength + Fighting for melee combat. The system is highly flexible, and having a short list of broad skills allows a character to be specialized in their role, yet still have character points left to put in other skills (and thus be able to shoot a Ray pistol and speak five languages, for example).

In addition, Rocket Age has several character and equipment traits that can enhance fighting characters. In the Vortex System talkers, movers, and doers go before fighters in initiative; this encourages players to interact with the setting in ways other than rolling to hit. For those who want to break things and kill people, the Fighting Man or Woman trait lets them jump into a different initiative phase and act. This is just one example; there are several tweaks to the Vortex System that makes it a more combat friendly system. However, Rocket Age is not combat centric, the system allows for combat to be more prominent and a valid option, but still keeps the talking and thinking center stage.

Lets look at cerebral and social conflicts. In the source material there was usually a lot of talking, these were mostly low budget productions and fighting required extra money and time to look good. Instead, heroes of the serials tended to talk and think (and on film thinking means talking) their way out of situations. The Man (and in Rocket Age Man or Woman) of Science! is a standard of the genre, and I wanted them to be able to take center stage alongside the heavy. The smooth talker, while of less importance in earlier sci-fi, is a staple of today. This type of character has something to do in Rocket Age, and is not forced into a supporting position while the combat characters do all the hard work.

An example of a Rocket Age scene with three PCs outside the entrance to a vault inside an Ancient Martian ruin. While Professor Smarty-Pants is busy trying to figure out how to open the electronic locks on the vault, Major Gun-Bunny and Mr. Talk-Talk are keeping watch. There are wild animals in the ruins, not to mention that this area is claimed by a tribe of wild Chanari (a nomadic group on Mars). Mr. Talk-Talk spots a dust trail; it’s a band of Chanari warriors. The nomads approach and Mr. Talk-Talk tries to negotiate, but the Chanari want blood or tribute, and the party doesn’t have enough trade goods with them. Major Gun-Bunny does his best to be intimidating while Mr. Talk-Talk attempts to smooth things over.

But the Chanari aren’t having it, and a fight ensues. While the other two PCs are busy diving for cover and shooting it out, Professor Smarty-Pants redoubles her efforts. The three-ton door to the vault slides open and our heroes pile inside just before the lock cycles back and the door slams shut. The three fumble in the dark for their flashlights and illuminate the contents of the vault: row after row of robomen standing in mute silence. A red light pulses from a control panel on the other side of the room. Are the robomen functional, but dormant? Will they be awakened soon and what were their last orders? Did Mr. Talk-Talk see that the Chanari have a captured radium rifle that could punch through the door? Tune in next week to find out!

Every PC should have something to do, and the Vortex System encourages that. In the little scene above we saw social conflict, combat, and a battle of wits between a PC and the long dead designers of an Ancient Martian vault. Maybe a few of the Chanari have been placed Out of Story by the combination of Social and Physical damage, but Social damage goes away in fifteen minutes, the nomads scarred off might come back, and be looking for revenge (those shot down by RAY blasts will likely not be doing much of anything ever again).

James: Even with all the detail presented in the Rocket Age core book, you can only fit so much in the 256 pages of one book. What got left on the cutting room floor that you lament losing? Can you give us an idea of how Rocket Science went from a genre concept to a fleshed out universe where you have to blend history, classic tropes and give it all a unique twist to create a breathing universe for gamers?

Ken: When I finished the manuscript and submitted it to Cubicle 7 it was well over the word limit, something would have to be cut. In the end I cut out about a third of the Mars chapter, as well as some odds and ends, and edited down a couple of sections to be tighter (which they needed). With RPG publishing there is a balance between size, content, and marketability. That and I simply love Rocket Age and if left unchecked every title in the product line would be over a thousand pages.

As far as how Rocket Age went from genre to fully fleshed out solar system (the universe might come later), well, that’s what I intended from the start. I knew right away that I didn’t want to produce a Flash Gordon pastiche or simply an homage, but I wanted to capture some of the look and feel of that era of sci-fi. I did not want to produce something that was just a campy send up of the tropes; I have seen that far too often with pulp settings and systems. Rocket Age needed to be a living, breathing, sci-fi setting with enough range and depth to fit multiple playstyles. It needed to make sense to modern readers and gamers, not just to people who have a fondness for certain genres. A lot of research was involved, watching old serials, reading or rereading mid-century sci-fi texts, and some research on the era.

James: The pulp adventures of Rocket Age focus primarily on Venus, Earth, Jupiter (and its moons) and Saturn. While earthlings have had their universe greatly expanded by the events depicted in the alternate timeline presented by the game, there is still a vast expanse of the solar system unexplored. Each planet is presented with a kind of unique tone and theme that fits within the genre of classic sci-fi pulp. Can you give our readers a few tidbits about each of these locations and how they all fit together to define Rocket Age as a complete setting.

Ken: Each planet has a general theme that underscores everything I write about it. Not everything about a planet is tied to that theme, but the planetary themes are always in the background. Mercury is about abandonments and isolation, poor little ignored Mercury, and poor little uplifted space slug that is stuck there. Venus is about passion, but not in a sexual manner. It’s the lust for gold, drive to explore, the love of country and home, the wandering of the Venusians and the way they interact with each other. Mars is conflict, and you can see that with the Deutsche Marskorps, 1st MEF, and other factions battling for their share of the spoils of war. It is also in way that ideologies collide, both Martian and Earthling concepts of war, peace, religion, science, economics, government, and love are battling it out. Jupiter and its moons present the idea of domination, of who is in control, who is king, and what happens when there is no king. We will leave Saturn and on out of this discussion, I don’t want to tip my hat on what will come for them.

James: By the multitude of martian subraces and the detailed culture of Mars presented in the core rules, it’s safe to say that there’s an affection for this planet in particular. It’s clearly the most detailed part of the setting in the core book. There are elements of classic pulp literature like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Jon Carter series, but can you give some insight about other sources that helped inspire the unique martian culture depicted in Rocket Age and how you blended everything together?

Ken: Mars seemed to call to me more than the other planets, at least at first. It’s also the planet that seems to have captured the most imaginations during the early days of sci-fi, and on to through the 1930s and 1940s. Naturally Burroughs influenced some of the Martian concepts, but so did many other sci-fi novels and games. To me, Mars should be a desert world; it is in real life (though not a hot desert). There is something in the Anglo-American mindset that sees deserts as exotic and foreign, and I wanted to play to that. The Orientalist style and fashion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a big inspiration, as was the history of the Middle East. My background is in anthropology and geography, and I drew from cultures throughout history and around the world for inspiration for all of Rocket Age. Most of all I wanted Mars, and the whole Solar System for that mater, to have a history that explains why things are the way they are.

James: Rocket Age saw its release at Gen Con Indy 2013. What kind of response did you get from the convention attendees? As Rocket Age blasts off into the future, how does fan reception play into the growth of the game and what can we expect to see in future supplements for Rocket Age?

Ken: I had a lot of people come both at the Cubicle 7 booth and in our events tell me how much they like Rocket Age, even a few people in the events with the pdf on their devices, reading along during the game. So far fan reception has been positive, the reviews are good, and folks over at the Cubicle 7 forums are excited and happy. As the corebook moves towards worldwide release I hope to see more of the same from a wider audience. I intend to keep writing Rocket Age as long as fans want it. We have Blood Red Mars in editing, Heroes of the Solar System (a player focused title) in production and playtesting, and plans for The Lure of Venus, Imperial Jupiter, and The Edge of the Solar System. There are also a series of episodes that being written by myself and some freelancers that will be released in pdf. Other than that, there are no other titles on the schedule, yet. If Rocket Age achieves orbit more titles will be added to the schedule, and as we get deeper into it, firm release dates. We will work diligently to bring you the best games we can.

James: Thanks again, Mr. Spencer for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions. I for one am very excited about Rocket Age and hope myself along with many other Rocket Rangers can look forward to countless thrilling serials in the months and years to come. Before we fire up our Mark III Rocket Packs and brave the stars, are there any parting words you’d like to leave for our readers?

Ken: Thanks for this opportunity to talk about Rocket Age. You can always find out more information at http://www.cubicle7.co.uk/our-games/rocket-age/, and at the Cubicle 7 forums. I would love to hear about people’s Rocket Age games, so post what you are doing, talk about the game, and enjoy some wild speculation about Europans. We do a weekly live blog of the playtest groups on Monday and Thursday from around 6pm EDT to 9:30pm EDT.

Rocket Rangers, Away!

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The Rocket Age Core Book is available for purchase as a Hardcover Corebook and PDF Bundle at the Cubicle 7 Web Store or you purchase the PDF by itself at DriveThru RPG. You can also check out many other wonderful games at Cubicle 7 Entertainment. All images used in this article are used with permission from the Cubicle 7 Entertainment website.

 

About korazi

Part-time hobbit, full-time Tolkien fanatic, James became a fan after the release of the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and within years he had devoured all things Tolkien and embraced his hobbit life. While not fond of adventures, he is enjoying his Unexpected Journey as a father, freelance table-top role-playing game author and Legendarium Media contributor.

3 comments

  1. I LOVE this game so much! Need to get a one off going!

  2. Fantastic interview James (As usual)

    This game sounds like a lot of fun!

    Do I sense a Legendarium.me Rocket Age vidcast, Steve? 😉

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