Steamscapes: Asia -- The Eric Simon Interview

We're in the home stretch for the Kickstarter to fund Steamscapes: Asia from Four-in-Hand Games -- for which I'm writing a significant section!

I readily admit that I'm not an impartial party, but I never would have signed on to write the Japanese section of Steamscapes: Asia if I didn't like the setting in the first place... And that's the result of the care and conscience Eric Simon (AKA Fairman Rogers) has put into the setting.  We chatted on Google+ today about the upcoming book and the Kickstarter.

Sean Bircher: Fairman Rogers is your steampunk alter ego, named after a historical figure perhaps most famed for being the subject of the painting "The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand."  What is a steampunk alter ego and why Fairman Rogers?

Eris Simon: So in the steampunk community, there is a common practice of developing a persona. This is true in club scenes, conventions, and even on forums.

Typically, that persona is going to be something fictional but distinctive, like "Lady Clankington" (a well-known steampunk costumer). [Link is NSFW.]

In developing my persona, I decided I wanted something more historical, so I started looking for real people that I could use. I had a year in mind, and I specifically wanted to play up the Philadelphia connection. So I ended up settling on Fairman Rogers, who was a professor of natural philosophy (i.e. - science) at Penn.

He was exactly the kind of Renaissance man I was looking for.

Sean Bircher: Aha! So, for those of us with more of a fantasy background, it's not unlike the Society for Creative Anachronism.  Interesting... I'd like to get back to that, but I have a question (or maybe just an observation) about the painting.

"The Fairman Rogers Four-in-Hand" is notable as one of the earliest paintings to correctly depict the movement of horses' legs. Prior to the invention of photography, horses were always depicted rather oddly, but then this new science came along and revealed the truth of the world.

Imperial Inventor from the site of James Ng
(Not one of the pieces for Steamscapes: Asia, but perfectly capturing the setting.)

Steamscapes is a setting that tries to get back to the science -- the steam -- behind steampunk.  It aggressively attacks history, and makes us reconsider our approach to the genre.  Was that in your mind when you chose Fairman Rogers and Four-in-Hand, or am I just babbling?

Eric Simon: No, it definitely was. There has been quite a bit of serendipity in how we have chosen our logos and representations, and this was definitely one of them. And of course the "Four-in-Hand" name also represents the idea that I am trying to drive this whole thing all by myself. So it's also a bit of an in-joke for me.

Sean Bircher: I definitely understand trying to do it all yourself. I’ve been trying to do The King is Dead all on my own and I’ve realized that the publishing side is getting away from me.  What made you decide to take on contributors for Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: Well, my goal from the beginning was to make this project bigger than Steamscapes: North America. And I knew that I *could* do that myself if I had to, but I wanted to bring in more people to broaden the viewpoints. I had kind of hoped at the outset that I could get enough writers that I could sit back and just design and edit, but I am not yet well-known enough to draw in that many people.

Also, part of my goal as a game designer is to get more people out there into the industry, both artists and writers.

I enjoy being a collaborator, and my hope is to bring in people from all over for each project.

Sean Bircher: Speaking of collaborators, what should we know about the authors who are contributing the setting fiction?  You did a compelling post about why setting fiction is important, but what makes these authors the right people for the job?

Eric Simon: When I was first starting to look for people, I knew that one thing I wanted to do was bring in another prominent Chicago-area designer. Steve Townshend filled that role so well in the North America book, and I was very excited to be able to bring in Will Hindmarch [of Project: Dark] for this one. Will is one of the best storytellers out there, in both fiction and games, and I am excited to see what he will come up with.

Kevin Andrew Murphy was one of those serendipity moments. I started talking to him at the Pinnacle panel, and really enjoyed that conversation. When I very tentatively offered to bring him on, he jumped at it. Kevin has done a lot of short fiction in and out of the game industry, including one of the Wendigo Tales for Weird War I [No Man’s Land], so I know he has a strong sense of the historical.

And then it was Kevin who introduced me to William F Wu, one of his fellow Wild Cards writers, and also someone who has written a fair bit of alternate history himself, specifically as it relates to the 19th century Chinese experience. When I asked him, he even told me he is working on a steampunk story as well, set about 20 years later than Steamscapes, and we are planning to cross-promote.

Sean Bircher: Cool!  I look forward to reading their work!

Abruptly dragging the questions back to gaming itself, what do you say to GMs and players who are worried about having to do a bunch of research before running a Steamscapes game?

(I personally would just say "Dude, it's alternate history. Go nuts!")

Eric Simon: I say they should be listening to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff. Seriously, Ken Hite has talked numerous times about running historical games, and he likes to point out that the GM only has to know more than the most knowledgeable person at the table. And if that person is cool, not even that much. If you are running a historical campaign, the key is to have some overall themes and even tropes that you want to hit, and then just do your research for each specific game. End each session by finding out where your group wants to go next, and then do enough research to throw in some interesting references.

Sean Bircher: That seems like good advice to me.

It sometimes seems that would-be players get paralyzed by history, but we play these games set in these intricate worlds mapped out by others and it doesn't bother us. 

Eric Simon: Honestly, I would be much more intimidated about running Edge of the Empire than a historical game.

Sean Bircher: Ha!  Exactly!  It seems to me that running a historical game -- especially an alternate history game -- is no more difficult than running the Forgotten Realms.  If you don't like something, don't use it.  (I personally never use any Realms stuff past the second boxed set.)

This raises the question, though, of what cool things might the prospective GM and players find in Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: So many things. With North America, we wanted to present a sandbox (steambox?) with many different ways into steampunk. However, with a few notable exceptions, North America in 1871 has a strong European influence. Because of that, traveling from nation to nation is usually not that difficult, and there are even communities of European and African descendants in the Plains Tribal Federation.


Asia is different. There is no homogeneity there. Rather, there are even more disparate factions, and unlike in North America, their rivalries are much more established. Because of that, there is even more opportunity to choose the type of setting you want for your game, and that choice is going to influence how you interact with the many other nations and kingdoms. Exploring is still a prime consideration, but you are going to have to step a little more carefully if you are Japanese gearsmith trying to sell goods in mainland China.

Sean Bircher: Something I remember from my research was how some Japanese factions before the Meiji Restoration had this conspiracy theory that all Europeans were actually one country because they didn't have their own unique national styles of dress (as opposed to the Asians who all had their own national costumes),

Eric Simon: Right! And one of the effects of that is that it will be even more difficult to play European or North American characters in Asia. Because many people have reason to be suspicious of you.

Sean Bircher: It just occurred to me that Steamscapes: Asia is something of an antidote to the classic Oriental Adventures and Legend of the Five Rings because it deliberately rejects homogenizing Asian cultures.

Eric Simon: Indeed. That is *very* intentional. That's part of the goal across the whole line.

Sean Bircher: You can see that rejection of received values in the way that Steamscapes: North America rejected corsets on the outside (amongst other things).

Without giving away too much, what's your favorite surprise or revelation or just cool gamable thing that's coming up in Steamscapes: Asia?

Eric Simon: Wow. That one's hard to pick. I think one of the more interesting things for me will be to show how all of our existing professions get reinterpreted in Asia. Unlike North America, where most of the scientists are from the East Coast and most of saboteurs are from the Plains, the roles are a lot more jumbled up in Asia. Japan, for instance, has a mix of pro- and anti-technology factions. China isn't as interested in railroads as India, but they are much more interested in air power. Things like that.

Sean Bircher: And now there's going to be a martial arts Edge tree too, right?

Eric Simon: That is true. The big Edge trees are going to be the Apothecary and the martial arts. But we're working on developing the martial arts in a way that respects differences across the different disciplines. You won't be able to suddenly access Aikido because you know Tai Chi, for instance. Those are completely different styles.

Sean Bircher: Keeping true to the desire to not homogenize the Asian experience.

Eric Simon: Exactly. And also the desire to give credit where credit is due. We would like Korea to feel well represented, and making Taekwando just like any other martial art would be disrespectful.

(Of course, that's a more recent example, but you see what I mean.)

Sean Bircher: I know the section on Korea is going to be smaller than China, India, and Japan, but I'm really looking forward to it. The diversity available for player characters in a historical setting is just as fascinating as all the elves and dwarves and hobbitses in a fantasy setting.

Eric Simon: I agree. And Korea is going to be an important bulwark against Chinese expansionism, since they will be the other country that has advanced rocketry. The Apothecary will be available to a variety of nations, but China and Korea are the two most important.

Sean Bircher: It's a good thing for Korea that Japan is hampered by its own divisions this time. [As backers already know, Steamscapes: Asia’s Japan is divided between the Japanese Empire and the Republic of Ezo.]

Eric Simon: Indeed. And China is probably going to be looking at Japan first instead, partially because of their collaboration with the English.

Sean Bircher: Just a thought, but are we living in the perfect time to run a late 19th century Asian setting or what?

There's a profusion of Asian-made TV and film to draw on.

Netflix and Hulu are full of Korean dramas set during the period, the Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero movies are practically the setting come to life, and every time I turn around there's another anime set in the Bakumatsu or early Meiji.  It's great!

Eric Simon: Definitely! There is plenty of inspirational material available made by the people who we are trying to represent, and that's awesome. It is always important when doing a respectful historical game to consider original source material, and we certainly have plenty of that. This is why I love Lagaan - it looks at first like it's going to include a British savior, but then it turns that on its head.

Sean Bircher: We've talked about the history in Steamscapes: Asia but we shouldn't give people the wrong idea. Steamscapes is still a wild ride. There's spark wranglers with electricity wands, steam tanks, automatons, explosions.  All the craziness people expect out of steampunk is there -- it's just tied to this deeper, more diverse world.

Eric Simon: Yes, thank you for bringing us back. Like I said, there's a lot of exploration to be done. And I really think the Asia setting is a much bigger world for that than North America.

Sean Bircher: Are there any announcements about the Kickstarter that you would like to make?  (Hint, hint.)

Eric Simon: Sure! I actually have two - one that you know of and one that I haven't mentioned to you yet. First of all, we're going to be offering a free preview adventure to everyone who backs at any level. That will be set in Japan and written by our very own Sean Bircher. We know that we've asked people to wait a while for the book itself, so we want to give them some more immediate rewards.

Sean Bircher: Hooray me! [Saitō Hajime will be in the adventure! And a robot geisha!  And Wagakki Band – sort of.]

Eric Simon: Secondly, I am happy to announce that James Ng is going to be making his Dragon Airship art available as a 10x14 print. We will be providing more details about that in the next day or two, but I can definitely say that it will be an addon for any level, and also that it will be available immediately after the campaign.

Sean Bircher: Awesome!  That is some very, very pretty art; it is practically all the inspiration you need summed up in one image.

Eric Simon: My thoughts exactly. Every detail is exactly what I think of when I think of Steamscapes, right down to the Qing Dynasty sigil on the forward rocket launcher door.

Imperial Airship by James Ng
(Again, not from Steamscapes: Asia, but darned close.) 

Sean Bircher: Going all the way back to the beginning of the interview, I noticed a thank you on one of the updates to Iowa Steampunk, a steampunk.. um... gathering?  (I don't know what to call them. Club?)  Is Steamscapes beginning to generate some heat in the larger world of steampunk?

Eric Simon: That's my hope! It's tricky, because there are a lot of steampunks who don't care for gaming. So mostly it's among gamers who are also steampunks. But I have been happy to get positive mentions by both Diana Pho (Beyond Victoriana) and Suna Dasi (Steampunk India). I think that the non-Euro steampunk set is much more willing to support our efforts, if only because it's so hard to find positive representations of more diverse cultures in steampunk.

Sean Bircher: Cool, it's nice to know that the people you're trying to represent appreciate your efforts.  Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

Eric Simon: I just want to remind people that our two starter backer levels can also be used as addons, and they are great ways to get into Steamscapes if you are new to the setting. They allow you to pick up our existing books at sharp discounts while supporting our current campaign.

Sean Bircher: Yeah, I can easily see adapting the Gunslinger's Guide for any 19th century setting (like Deadlands).  Heck, I'm one of the writers on Steamscapes:Asia and I pledged just to get the Gunslinger's Guide!

Eric Simon: That was our hope. And of course everyone who pledges will get to be part of the votes on what comes next.

Sean Bircher: This is just the beginning of the adventure!


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