Interview: Iain Lowson

Iain Lowson Dark Harvest – Legacy of Frankenstein really struck me by surprise. Before I found it in my mailbox I never even heard of it and it was of the best written games I’ve read in a while. I wanted to learn more about the person who came up with all these awesome ideas and so I asked Iain Lowson if he was willing to answer a couple questions for us. And luckily he was more than happy to do so:

Stargazer: Thanks again for taking your time to answer a couple of questions for Stargazer’s World. Let’s start with some introductions. Can you tell our readers a bit about yourself?

Iain: Never quite know what to say to that. Erm… I’m a 43 year old Scottish freelance writer, and I’ve been doing this writing thing full time for about 15 years now. Long enough that I can’t quite remember when I started. I write for anyone who pays me, and can turn my hand to most things. My CV is the kind of eclectic mix that only a jobbing writer can justify, as my LinkedIn profile can attest.

I’m disappointed that, despite my best efforts, I’ve yet to be directly vilified by the Daily Mail. I mean, dammit guys, I write for the console games industry, write twisted horror RPGs, I’m an atheist, utterly despise the current government, and was brought up by a single parent, hard working mother! C’mon! Open goal!!

Stargazer: One question I love to ask writers and designers is how they got into the hobby. What was the first roleplaying game you played and what roleplaying games did you play and enjoy in the past? Are you currently playing in a regular game?

Signing at Asylum Books & Games, 14th of May 2011 Iain: Ah, I remember it like it was… well, a long time ago. I was at Peebles High School, and on one of my regular lunchtime visits to the local toy and book store in town when I spotted a book called something like ‘What Is D&D?’ There had been some furore in the media (the daily televised car crash that was Nationwide, I think) about these new-fangled RPGs which, of course, made me want to join in the fun – I wanted to summon daemons like them kids in America!! It all sounded like fun but, in the days before teh internets, there was no easy way of getting hold of new things, particularly in the charming backwaters of the Scottish Borders.

Weeks later, the charming backwaters of the Scottish Borders proved me wrong and stocked ‘Warlock of Firetop Mountain’ and I was immediately addicted. Nationwide did not approve, which made it all even better. Not long after this, my Peebles mecca had on its shelf the Holy of Holies – red box D&D. I still have the dice. Ah, good times…

Since then I’ve played in loads of different RPGs. I’ve run the old WEG Star Wars D6 system (still my favourite), Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu, Vampire, and a bit of MERP and D&D. I’ve also LARPed, and written and run LARP horror games. That was amazingly amazing and I really want to do more of that.

I’m not playing anything at the moment, save console stuff. Not even any WoW for me. If I tried a MMORG I would cease to produce any work of any kind so I stay away.

Stargazer: I recently had a look at your LinkedIn profile and was surprised on how many cool projects you’ve worked on. What was – aside from Dark Harvest – your favorite project so far? Is there anything you would love to go back to in the future?

Steve Ironside, Rowena Aitken, Simon Proctor, Iain Lowson at Conpulsion 2011 Iain: I’ve worked on screeds of Star Wars stuff. I worked it out the other day – 12 or 13 of the past 15 years have been spent on official Star Wars projects. These have been mostly partworks things, published by De Agostini. Lots of fun, if very hard work at times. It’s a source of great geeky pride that I can point to a few tiny elements of the galaxy far, far away and say “I did that”.

A moment of particular immense geeky pride came when my friend Marcus Hearn, editor of the Official Star Wars Fact File, told me he’d given the material I wrote about Count Dooku to Christopher Lee. Apparently, Lee said it was the most information on the character he’d had at that time. This was before he filmed Episode III. I don’t think my feet touched the ground for weeks after that.

Right. Enough name dropping. Don’t you hate that? Ugh…

On the non-Dark Harvest RPG & LARP side, I’m stupidly happy that I’ve given at least one player of my old Cthulhu campaign at university actual nightmares. I’m very proud to say that, during a Cthulhu LARP I wrote and ran, the team and I so frightened a seasoned player with a Hunting Horror assault that he was almost shaking too much to load his pistol. The same game saw the joyous moment where the players sang Bohemian Rhapsody, segueing into American Pie, complete with harmonies, to disrupt a summoning. It was a spine-tingling moment of much joy.

And a complete location joke, like most RPG tales.

Moving on…

Stargazer: Let’s turn our attention to “Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein” now. When I remember correctly, you have been working on Dark Harvest for quite a long time. Can you please tell us a bit about how you came up with the idea in the first place and how that idea developed into the game that has been released by Cubicle 7 recently?

Dark Harvest cover Iain: Wow. Big question. Long answer.

Dark Harvest began with a conversation in my head between Frankenstein and the Creature, both in their dotage, sitting on the deck of an old ocean liner with blankets over their legs. They were having a laugh about the good old days. That conversation happened in around 1999 (in my head – the chat on the boat was set in around 1920).

I sat down to try to write the story, but then I got all distracted. Lots of ‘what if…?’ things began to happen. I was hugely influenced in what happened next by a trip to Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh (my home city). I’d never been, despite living in Edinburgh for years, but took an actress acquaintance and her friend (hey Chase and Lolita!!) as an excuse to go myself. I’d thoroughly recommend it –

Edinburgh’s Royal Mile was a physical manifestation of the societal pyramid, which is a nobby way of saying that the poor folks lived in the sub-sub-sub cellars while the rich lived above them in the light. Add in the resurrection men, robbing graves or killing folks to provide bodies to the medical schools, and you can begin to see where the whole Dark Harvest thing came from.

I kept trying to write a story based on what was in my head. Other elements began to intrude – Palpatine/Sidious in the Prequel trilogy; Medieval and Roman politics; Bruce Campbell’s Surgeon General in Escape From L.A.; Victorian industrialists’ treatment of their workers. All sorts. Every time I tried to write one story, a tangent would absorb me. I started chatting about the thing to friends, particularly another writer called Andrew Harman and my mate (and lifelong tech support) Martin. There was obviously something too it, as the whole emerging backstory got under folks’ skin and stayed there. Much nagging was done for me to do something with it.

DH artwork Fast forward to, I think, 2006 and I’m between contracts. Silven Publishing, who did PDF’s, advertised on the freelancing forum on RPG.Net that they were looking for someone to write a dark fantasy setting. I contacted them and told them they actually wanted dark historical. I showed them the notes I had on what was then called The Frankenstein Society. Rubbish, rubbish, horrible name. It became Promethea, and was almost finished when Silven went bust and it all came back to me – an 80 page book with nowhere to go.

By then, Steve Ironside had heard about the idea and read what was there. He was adding his nagging voice to the get it done crowd. I must’ve mentioned it to indy game design genius Gregor Hutton coz what happened next was largely his fault.

I got invited by Simon Proctor to Conflagration in Glasgow in 2009. I was supposed to be talking about the console games stuff I’d done, and general writing stuff. Knowing Gregor was there, I grabbed him and insisted he help me out, as he had by far and away more successful experience than I. I did the usual thing of saying to folks that their Big Idea, no matter how wonderful, was worth absolutely nothing unless they did something with it (and got the usual argument from someone in the room). Anyway, Gregor stopped me afterwards and informed me that I’d talked myself into trouble – he wanted to see that Frankenstein thing finished and out there.

I spent the next year getting folks together to do the game as a self-published, systemless setting PDF book thingy. Andrew Harman and Magz Wiseman came aboard to do some additional writing. I’d met two artists when I worked for Midway in Newcastle, so Corlen Kruger did the cover and Kim Roberts and Scott Purdy did some internal B&W art. Andrew put me in touch with Robert Coles to do the map. By the time of Conpulsion 2010 in Edinburgh, I was ready to begin advertising the book with some teaser posters. At this point, Dark Harvest was around 110 pages.

Another old chum now stepped in. Artist Andy Hepworth told me that Angus Abranson from Cubicle 7 was going to be at Conpulsion and that I should have a chat about the whole Dark Harvest thing. I did, though the usual thing happened and I utterly dried when I tried to chat to Angus. Andy rescued me while my brain rebooted and much talking was done. Poor Angus…

Anyway, I sent him the book. He liked it, but asked for more art and for a system to be applied. I’d thought about OGL D20, but wasn’t happy with that. I’d never understood it. It just got in the way. Angus suggested using the Heresy engine as C7 owned it. He also felt it more appropriate for the setting. At that point Andrew Peregrine and Walt Ciechanowski got involved. Steve Ironside took the stripped down basics they provided and worked it into the system you see in the book. A friend I met through games work, Matt Gibbs, came aboard to edit the book. My old mate from the Star Wars Fact Files days, James King, got involved to do the layout, and Rowena Aitken provided additional artwork. I think the last thing was the index, which damn near killed me.

So, yes, that was it! Like I said, long story.

Stargazer: Dark Harvest is such a great and deep setting that it would be a shame not to support it with updates. What are your plans for DH supplements? How will Dark Harvest be supported in the future?

Hehe, I love these t-shirts! Iain: Dark Harvest will be getting its first supplement in April, all things being equal. It’ll be called Resistance, and will focus in the main part on the struggle between the Resistance group run by the Creature, plus the other independent groups, and the Promethean authorities. It’ll have a bunch of other material to support the game too, including a very thorough Edwardian equipment listing that is complimented with a revision of the money values in the core game, which were based on the Victoriana values. There will also be a bunch more fiction, art and all that sort of thing.

I’m delighted to add Sara Dunkerton to the team. She’s working on some interior art, and has already completed a six page comic which serves as an intro to the book. You can see bits and pieces from it at her site.

Beyond that, the Dark Harvest website will provide a drip-feed of material. We’ve got a Facebook page to help support the DH community with news, and a Twitter feed. Follow us on @DarkHarvest_LoF!

The website is the big thing though. We’ve already put the character sheet and a huge map pack up there as a free download. There’ll be more of that sort of thing in the future. There are samples from the book for folks who want to know a little bit more before they buy. I post little bits and pieces I’ve found useful in my own research, mostly links to sites with photos or whatever that will help GM’s add flavour to their games.

I actively encourage folks to get involved. An English chap living in Romania has recently started a series of posts about key individuals from Romanian history, complete with his ideas on how they might feature in your game. We’re doing one every Thursday, where time and Real Life ™ allow. Once we have a bunch of them, I’ll collect them together in a single document and post it as a download.

We’re going to be announcing a new competition soon (really must get around to announcing the winners of the last one – sorry all!). I’m excited about this one – the plan is folks come up with a location within Promethea, giving a sketchy map but as much description as possible. The winner will have the map done professionally by Robert Coles and then uploaded to the website. The winner will also get a nice big print of their map. So, yeah, watch out for that!

Stargazer: The Dark Harvest book not only contains the setting and the rules needed to play but also an anthology of short stories set into the DH world. Are there any plans for additional short story anthologies or even a novel?

Iain: There’s a lot of fluff in the book, but it all helps players and GM’s get their heads around the setting. DH came from trying to write stories, so it felt natural to include them. As to books purely of fiction – I would love to see that, particularly an anthology. I love seeing what other folks do with Dark Harvest. Guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens next.

Stargazer: Aside from Dark Harvest are you currently working on any other roleplaying game projects? If so, what can you tell us about those?

I’m hoping to redo a supplement I wrote years ago, oddly at the same time I was doing the Dark Harvest PDF for Silven. It was for Morrigan’s High Medieval game, but never saw publication before they very sadly ran into problems. The book, High Medieval France: Charlemagne’s Legacy, needs a load of work done to make it ready. Looking forward to getting stuck in about that though. Need to wait for folks to get back from US GenCon.

Other than that, there’s another setting bubbling away in my head. Not sure what to do with that to begin with. Might make it a book (well, three books in fact), might make it a comic. Don’t know. It’ll definitely be an RPG setting at some point. Just not sure when.

Iain: Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?

Like I’ve said already, I encourage folks to get involved and make DH:LoF their game. I’ll happily post stuff to the site if it’s well considered, interesting, fun, chilling stuff. I want to hear more stories of Promethea. I want to hear YOUR stories!

Stargazer: Thanks for taking your time to answer these questions. The team of Stargazer’s World wishes you the best of luck with Dark Harvest and all your future projects!