Iain Lowson interview

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Iain Lowson is a Scottish based freelance writer who’s worked for such big names as Ubisoft, Relentless Software, the Official Star Wars magazine, Polyhedron and the Official Babylon 5 Magazine.

This year Iain published the RPG Dark Harvest: The Legacy of Frankenstein that makes use of the Heresey Engine for tabletop RPGs and was brought out under the auspices of Cubicle 7.

Iain’s kindly agreed to a quick Q&A style interview.

Q. Your LinkedIn suggests you’ve spent more than two years working on Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein. Two years! Are you utterly fed up with the project yet?

A. Well, actually it’s been ten years, maybe more. It started as a short story idea, then kept getting bigger and bigger in my head. I had the chance about 5 years ago to do a version of the setting for a PDF publisher, but they went bust before the book was quite finished. It all came back to me, got bigger again, was about to be a self-published thing, then a chance meeting with Angus from Cubicle 7 added another year to the development and the result is the book and all the other plans.

It’s a difficult thing to get sick of, really, particularly when you have other folks involved. For every idea I come up with, the other folks involved all throw something into the ring too. The fact that the setting can allow that makes it too exciting to get dull just yet. Ask me that again in another ten years and we’ll see.

Q. You’re known for working on Star Wars magazines and a few console games projects. Dark Harvest feels like a steampunky switch from your usual sci-fi territory. Was this deliberate?

A. Not really. I write all sorts of things across so many genres – high and low fantasy, modern day, martial arts and other action stuff, Napoleonic, even comedy murder mystery. That said, with particularly Star Wars taking up so much of my working day, it’s always nice to take a break from space opera and do something a bit darker, a bit more gritty and ‘real’. I hadn’t intended to write a steampunk setting. It was after I started involving others that they pointed out that was sort of what Dark Harvest is.

Q. What’s it like being the single driving force behind such a large project? How do you motivate yourself to keep going?

A. It’s deeply satisfying, hugely scary, and a lot of self-inflicted pressure. It’s been an absolute joy working with the folks who got involved. They’ve shown such commitment and patience, and delivered far above and beyond. The motivation in part comes from the fact that I don’t want to let them down. There’s also the fact that they bring so much to the project. From simple comments pointing out stuff that didn’t really work as it was, to bringing ideas to the project that just rocked me back in my seat. I remember Walt coming up with the idea of what was effectively a ‘personal shopper’ for debauched nobles looking to Harvest particular styles of body parts. That gave me chills! Or Andrew Harman coming up with the experiments in giving gills to Augmented soldiers or guard animals to patrol the Danube border. Loved that. Even seeing the rules come together from Andy and Steve; rules that even I could understand! I adore that the rules don’t get in the way. Then there’s the art. I always get a massive buzz seeing artists illustrate what’s in my head, particularly as they always bring their own ideas into the images. Corlen’s illustration of an Evisceration, for example. It’s hard not to be motivated when you’re working with talent like that.

Q. Frankenstein seems a very unlikely subject for an RPG. How did inspiration strike? What made you sure Dark Harvest would work as a game?

A. The starting point for the whole thing, way back in 1999 (I think), was a chat in my head between the Creature and Frankenstein on board an ocean liner in the 1920’s. Not Titanic though. Things built from there after a visit to Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, my home city. Then I was an extra in a production at the Lyceum in Edinburgh of the Burke and Hare play The Anatomist. I’ve a thing for history. So many major world-changing events turn on the actions of one individual. My thought, and the tag-line for the whole project, was “What if Frankenstein got it right?” From there, it’s all really logical. Well, in my head anyway.

It slowly dawned on me that the whole Promethea thing would make a great game setting when I was seriously struggling to focus on just one story based in the place. I started making notes on Promethea’s history with a view to writing something, and it just snowballed. Andrew Harman and I, when we get together, normally end up chatting into the wee small hours kicking ideas about. The fact that so many different story possibilities tumbled out all at once just made us both realise that Promethea had to be done as a game setting first. Andrew was the first other writer to get involved.

Q. Where there any other sources of inspiration for Dark Harvest? Music, movies, other books or even TV programs?

A. Oh, blimey! So many! Bioshock is in there for certain, along with all of its inspirations – including Atlas Shrugged of course. I think Rand would’ve got on really well with Frankenstein. Lots of history programs and books, particularly on the Industrial Revolution through to the Great War. You can’t beat history for providing inspiration. Years of watching Horizon and others on the Beeb. Time Team! Also the series Tony Robinson did on the worst jobs in history. The films of Terry Gilliam, particularly Brazil. There’s even a little of Palpatine/Darth Sidious in the way Victor played the long game in setting up Promethea. Weirdly, the Surgeon General in the otherwise awful Escape from L.A. is quite an influence. Any documentaries on cosmetic surgery I’ve ever seen, or shows about rich, spoiled bastards. You’ll find them in Dark Harvest. Biggest influence from TV and film is undoubtedly Doctor Who, particularly the first few Tom Baker seasons. Brain of Morbius!!

Q. What’s your relationship with Cubicle 7 like? How did their involvement come about and guide the project?

A. This is going to sound so sycophantic… ;) Cubicle 7 are fantastic. Angus and Dom had such a hugely positive influence on the finished result. I met them through artist Andy Hepworth, a friend from way back. At the time, I was about to self-publish Dark Harvest as a ‘pure’ setting book, entirely systemless. Andy mentioned Angus was going to be attending Conpulsion 2010, a gaming con in Edinburgh, and he introduced us. Angus and I got talking, I mentioned Dark Harvest. He said he’d take a look, did so, and then made a few other suggestions. The setting was further refined, a load of artwork was added, and then he pointed out that the project really needed and deserved a system. We talked about maybe D20, but that wasn’t going to be satisfactory. We settled on Victoriana, and Angus put me in touch with Andrew Peregrine and Walt Ciechanowski. It’s no exaggeration to say that a good half of the book comes from Cubicle 7’s guidance.

Q. What’s next? Any other Dark Harvest supplements? New projects?

A. There’s a whole load of possibilities, and a bunch of projects bubbling away. Nothing I can talk about directly (the joy of NDA’s), so I’ll limit this to Dark Harvest. I want to do a fiction anthology, purely short stories, but there’s some work to do before that happens. There will be a supplement, based around the Resistance in Promethea. This came from the fact that the initial setting, though touching on the Resistance, had a lot of other material to cover. Rob Coles, the amazing map creator, actually started the whole idea. He said that the map in the existing core book is one produced by the Promethean authorities. He wanted to do one produced, or annotated, by the Resistance. It would have very different information. That sparked so many ideas! However, I want to hold of a little and see what the folks who bought the core book want. I very much want to give the players and readers what they want, where possible. In the immediate future, there’s going to be a few announcements coming up shortly. There’s going to be a competition or two over the next few months, with some very excellent prizes.

In the long term, I’d love to see a console game set in Promethea. It has so much potential as a videogame!

Q. Your Twitter account (@EmbraAgain) suggests that you’re often engaged in Star Wars activities. Can you elaborate? Were you one of the lightsaber pranksters that jumped up at the start of a few movies in Edinburgh cinemas last year?

A. Heh, no, that wasn’t me. J I’ve been a freelance writer for a little over 15 years now, and most of that has been spent writing for official Star Wars projects. Those include Official Star Wars Magazine, Official Star Wars Fact File (138 issues out of 140 had stuff of mine in them) and the current partworks The Official Star Wars Starships & Vehicles Magazine. By the end of June I’ll have written all 80 of those magazines. I’ve had the huge, huge honour of contributing on a few occasions to various minor bits of official canon, thanks to the likes of Leland Chee, Chris Cerasi and, way back in the day, Alan Kausch. I’ve been lucky enough to turn a hobby into a job, despite the occasional issues that can throw up – sometimes even Star Wars can be just a job! Well, almost…

Q. How important has the internet and social sites like Twitter been when it comes to raising awareness of Dark Harvest?

A. Pretty important. We’ve just set up a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, and we’re setting up a new website. The previous one was Flash-based and sadly didn’t turn up on web searches. The Twitter and Facebook things just make it so much easier to keep folks up to date with what’s going on, but you have to remain aware that they can eat up your time like nothing else. It’s a matter of balancing the value – spend ages yattering on Twitter and FB or get on with writing the next supplement or book or whatever.

Q. Which sites, blogs or Twitter accounts would you recommend Dark Harvest gamers watch for inspiration, insights or just for fun?

A. Oooh, right.

There’s the existing website: www.wix.com/darkharvest/legacyoffrankenstein. On there you will find samples from the book, artwork, bios on the talented contributors with links to their sites, news on what’s happening next, and a link to buy Dark Harvest: Legacy of Frankenstein.

If you should wish to cut to the chase and buy it, head over to Cubicle 7’s shop and get the book, with the PDF thrown in for free: shop.cubicle7store.com.

There’s a forum for comments and questions. We watch it closely so you can expect an answer pretty quickly. Things are slow there right now, as these things tend to be, but it’s warming up! I’m completely genuine when I say that we want to hear from the players of the game as to what they want to see next. Get involved!

The Twitter account is: @DarkHarvest_LoF

The Facebook page is: www.facebook.com/pages/Dark-Harvest-Legacy-of-Frankenstein/126495260760795.

When the new website is up, there’ll be announcements and links all over. Same for when the competitions launch, or when signings or other such events are incoming.

Last up, I’ve got a LinkedIn page for folks looking to see what other nonsense I’ve been involved in, or for those who want to make a professional, work-related contact: linkedin.com/in/iainlowson.

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Andrew Girdwood
Andrew Girdwood

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