Good Grief, Carruthers!
Or – What is this Victorian Adventure Gaming thingy?
By Howard Whitehouse
Some call this Victorian Science Fiction, because of its connections with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and its trademark rivetty steam-powered devices of polished brass and cast iron. The literary types term it ‘Steampunk’, a steam-age variant on the depressed, dog-eat-dog future known as ‘cyberpunk’. The actual Victorians called it Scientific Romance, if they called it anything at all.
But, name aside, what is this thing?
First of all, it’s that period of time, starting around the middle of the nineteenth century, when the advance of science and engineering – I’d say ‘technology’, but people of that time seldom used that word – leapt forward further in a few decades than it had since the Fall of Rome. European nations - some with existing colonies, other anxious to acquire them – grabbed slices of territory in Asia and Africa. The United States expanded rapidly from a union of coastal settlements to conquer the whole western hinterland once regarded as ‘The Great American Desert’. Yet, although a spirit of footloose adventure was characteristic of the era, it was also a time of rigid class division, precise social etiquette and rules for every situation. It’s not surprising that many would-be adventurers stepped out from the confines of civilized society towards the freedom of the frontiers. And frontiers abounded, geographically, socially and intellectually. It’s the time of explorers like Burton and Livingstone, inventors such as Edison and Tesla, and free spirits like Nellie Bly and Buffalo Bill. It’s the era when a poet’s illegitimate daughter – Ada Lovelace, child of Lord Byron – worked with a mathematician to create the world’s first computer. Most of all it’s the Victorian Age, cocksure and optimistic, arrogant and wide-eyed, all at the same time.
I am not sure where it started. The source materials – the original books, the films, the radio shows that took their names and sometimes the actual plots – had been around for years. Colonial wargamers have often been among the most relaxed and wide-ranging people in the hobby, with a love and knowledge not only of the history, but of old Hollywood films and pop Victoriana. In his 1970 book, Wargames Campaigns, Don Featherstone had a campaign set in Africa, where the British fought an enemy who were a dangerous combination of Zulu warriors and Sikh (or Sikh-like) heavy artillery. Jack Scruby offered ‘Mafrica’, a continent where nineteenth century powers could conveniently gather to colonise a variety of less-than-compliant locals. Joseph Morschauser had his own imaginary West African kingdoms. And, in the 1970s, when we were all getting horribly serious and competitive, and deluding ourselves that we were doing ‘simulations’, Larry Brom wrote The Sword and the Flame, possibly the least self-important set of wargame rules ever devised, and massively influential and popular. At the same time, when licences were vaguely understood and RPG games were in their first flowering, you could buy ‘John Carter of Mars’ figures (the Burroughs Foundation had something to say about that), and a whole array of fantasy figures that were not yet locked into specific systems and universes. In the late 1980s Frank Chadwick planned a project, Space 1889, featuring the colonisation of Mars, and Venus too, by the great powers and the evil Belgians. It had an RPG, follow-on books, a boardgame of cloudships and ether flyers, and some miniatures; I wrote some of the nearly-historical background. Alas, the project failed commercially. Frank said that he thought that the Victorian Science Fiction gamers were born rather than made, but in retrospect I think he was simply ahead of his time. In the 1990s came Deadlands, a ‘weird west’ universe with figures, miniatures rules and an RPG, coming from the larger fantasy game industry rather than from the historical gaming fraternity – which meant, of course, that it was glossy and well produced, and could reach a wide market. It was a big success. There were other role-playing games, Castle Falkenstein, GURPS Steampunk, and Empires. Other forms of the media became interested in this Victorian stuff. In fiction, the steampunk movement has taken off in recent years, but its first gem, The Difference Engine, is a must read; there are some comic books that are well worth a look. And there are films, of course, and most of them stink. But we’ll come back to all that.
And for us wargamers, there are figures, rules, and steamy rivetty things in resin. We’ll come back to that, too.
For the miniature wargamer interested in this ‘period’, there’s an awful lot to sink your teeth into. You can do big battles with land-leviathans and armoured walkers marching alongside your Prussian army of 1870, or skirmish games where Dr Watson uses his trusty revolver against huge hounds and stunted inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, or you can play aerial battles between cloudships, aeronefs and sky galleons. Because it’s a real world and a real time, you can pick and choose what you do. The ‘Victorian’ part of the name is a misnomer; the period probably starts with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819) at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and ends not with the death of Good Queen Vicky in her bed, but with Archduke Ferdinand in his car – much of the ‘touchstone’ literature of the genre is from 1910 or 1912. Here are some people, places and things:
Victorian London. Which of us isn’t interested in the world of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper? Compare and contrast the comfortable, overstuffed prosperity of the upper classes with the teeming rookeries of crime and want in Whitechapel! Go to Limehouse, where Dr Fu Manchu’s criminal empire has its home near the heart of the British Empire. Coppers in blue and Lifeguards in red! Chase through darkened courts and alleys in search of the fiend! Related, in the sense of being big cities with a lot of dirty laundry, are New York, with its permanent gang wars of Irish immigrants, San Francisco - a city with beautiful architecture and a famously seamy underside - and Chicago, astoundingly corrupt long before the Capone era. Paris! Vienna!
The Lost World. Conan Doyle’s 1912 classic connects us to another icon of VAG. You get an isolated plateau, lost in the South American rainforest, where (slightly vague) dinosaurs face ape-men and some likeably humanoid Indians. Bring in a mad scientist, a crack hunter, a journalist (and maybe some others, if only for extra protein) and Bob’s Yer Uncle. You can change the place and the cast (all the movies have) but what you really want is big guns and mad science against dinosaurs, and who can resist that?
Life on Mars. Or the Moon. Or Venus. Actually my own least favourite, but popular from the first, with books by Verne, Wells and, of course, Edgar Rice Burroughs. This gives you the chance to pit military expeditions and novel wonders of aeronautical engineering against opponents far more colourful than mere Zulus or Afghans. It’s big, it’s blue, it has six arms – let’s see if it likes the Maxim gun! And there’s the reverse of the coin, the Martian invasion of Surrey, via HG Wells’ War of the Worlds and – more recently – the second series of ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’. I did a 6mm game some years ago of this, with converted Battletech mechs for the Martian tripods and H&R colonials for the defenders, fighting over my ECW terrain augmented by a railway line that gave a general look of stockbroker Tudor. Many safe Tory constituencies were ravaged in the process, and letters were written to the Daily Telegraph in complaint.
The Dark Continent. It was almost certainly Mark Copplestone’s range of figures for the Foundry that jump-started not only wargaming African exploration (I did it fifteen years ago, and had to convert everything from something else) but pushed over the narrow line between actual history – you know, Burton, Masai warriors, evil slavers – with the world of Tarzan, Lost Civilisations, and H. Rider Haggard. It’s an easy step for those of us who do not wish to see Rumanian Vampire Divisions on the Eastern front, but are willing to let the Maji-Maji magic work just this once. And then it’s lion-men and Roman legionaries in hippo-hide lorica segmenta. It’s a very potent mix: Quatermain after King Solomon’s Mines, Peters the German psychopath, pygmies and cannibals and Katherine Hepburn.
Lost Civilisations are a staple of the genre, in fact. They don’t have to be in Africa – South America, the Arctic, Central Asia or some parts of the West Midlands also seem eminently possible. My friend Mike Frang suggests, from diligent study of Tarzan books and films, that 50% of lost civilisations (with cities, armies, gladiatorial pits, barely clad priestesses, etc) are Roman, 25% are Atlantean, Egyptian or Greek, the rest a mix of sentient gorillas, lizardmen, fishmen and other non-humans. You can’t beat that for research.
The Caverns Beneath the Earth are a popular locale since Verne’s fiendishly boring Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864). The title’s good, which is why none of the films that use it follow Verne’s dull plot; my own wargame adventure of the same name doesn’t. Burroughs did At the Earth’s Core and Pellucidar, and the hollow earth concept allows a stirring mix of Lost Civilisations, dinosaurs, and other large, unfriendly creatures, missing explorers and other relatives, savage princesses in leather bikinis, cavemen and similar, and other things best referred to as ‘Conanesque’. That’s not a real word.
Related to the cavern concept, the sewers of any great city, the catacombs of Rome and Paris, the basement of the British Museum and the master criminal’s lair which is located under (sentence mysteriously deleted at this point) must be mentioned.
Amazing Inventions and Infernal Devices are what puts the ‘SF’ element into the genre. The period 1815-1914 witnessed astonishing changes in science and engineering; the world went from sailing ships, stagecoaches, and the first balloons to Titanic, telephones, aircraft and automobiles. There is not only steam technology, but Edison and Tesla’s electric inventions, clockwork, hydrogen, compressed air, small demons running around in a wheel, and – I don’t see this working – the petroleum engine. In VSF you get an extension of this to spacecraft, steam-powered robots and walkers, landships and steam cars. Some of these are simply bringing things forward a few decades – WW1 tanks painted red for the Franco-Prussian War, working dirigibles in 1880, that sort of thing - while others are massively improbable, because a hundred years ago you were free to invent what amounted to easy-care space shuttles that anchored above your chimney without anyone criticizing your dodgy science. And, of course, there’s the knowledge that the Victorians almost invented some things that would have made a tremendous difference, like the Babbage Engine and the steam-powered 200lb pocket cell-phone (made that one up). Interestingly, it’s almost a convention of the genre that ordinary soldiers and adventurers carry the standard weapons of the time – or, at most, slightly futuristic things like flame-throwers and LMGs –rather than astounding ray beam carbines or, well, AK 47s. Special weapons are just that, and ideally should malfunction catastrophically on the roll of a ‘1’.
Mad Science is the aspect of engineering and invention that marks the difference between the quite sensible march of progress that is the hallmark of Victorian civilisation and the dangerous wackiness that enthralls us without actually making us say ‘what if I drank this potion?’ ‘What if I attached rockets to my penny-farthing bike?’ Much of Wells’ work (The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man) and Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde deal with the, er, negative aspects of Mad Science, but I think we should be in favour of it. Professor Challenger leads on to Professor Braynestawm and all that ---
Alternate History is really something of a separate field in itself – some prefer to call it ‘counterfactuals’ – it deals with a change in history, a ‘point of departure’ (POD) from which all else follows. Real historians (!) might examine things like the consequences of a French victory at Waterloo (the kind of changes to history that wargamers deal in constantly) but you can take it as far as you like. In the Victorian context, what if --- the British had lost India in 1857? The South had won the Civil War? General Flashman had become prime minister? Moriarty had used the cavorite to defeat Fu Manchu? (oh, wait – that’s not history). You can do what you like with Alternate History, as long as the development from the POD is even vaguely convincing; there’s a wargamer out there who talks about the Prusso-Texan Alliance, which I find amusing, if alarming --
Time Travel follows on from Alternate History fairly easy, and is a popular subject for fiction. Wells wrote The Time Machine of course, for his own rather dour purposes of instructing us all about our place in the universe etc, but popular writers like Harry Turtledove have asked more pertinent questions like ‘What if modern mercenaries brought AK 47s to the Confederate Army?’ and took it from there. The Lost Regiment series takes an ACW Union unit to another, past time, where having 1860s technology proves a plus in many ways. My very favourite book in this genre – though not very wargamerish – is Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which runs between the near future, Coventry in the Blitz, and Jerome K Jerome’s idyllic Thames-side world of Three Men in a Boat.
The Wild, Wild West was a sixties TV show in the US, and a really bad film in the nineties. The theme of adding fantastic elements to the venerable Western genre dates back at least to the cowboy-dinosaur movie Valley of Gwangi (1969) and Deadlands, of course, examined mixtures of science, magic, witchcraft and dirty poker playing in depth. Thomas Jefferson apparently thought that the ‘Great American Desert’ might feature creatures long dead in more civilised parts; I wrote a short story involving Dr Moreau moving his operation to Hole in the Wall and putting Butch Cassidy in charge of the Beastmen, but nobody will publish it – the other side to the Wild West theme is that the amazing changes in transportation post 1815 means that Buffalo Bill can take his Wild West Show to England – or Mars – and that Arthur Conan Doyle can referee boxing matches in Colorado (?)
The Jewel in the Crown, India, has long been the subject of conventional colonial gaming, but little in the way of VSF or fantastic elements – though the history of the Thugs might count towards that. The bard of British India, Kipling, nevertheless wrote some ripping yarns about the frontier, and the Great Game of espionage between British and Russian agents on the Roof of the World – Kim and The Man Who Would Be King stand out. Talbot Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles and Om, the Secret of Abor Valley are worth seeking out for their mix of thrilling adventure and vaguely hokey Tibetan spiritualism. Now, if only I could build the Himalayas out of Styrofoam, I’d be away --
The Exotic Orient, which is how we must lump together China, Japan and all those vastly different cultures and societies east of Calcutta, is both an area for play, and the source of The Yellow Peril, which is, of course, going to engulf White Civilisation. Yes, there is a nasty racist element to some of the original Fu Manchu et al, so I fall back on my ‘let’s make fun of everyone involved’ response. China is vast and inscrutable, clearly begging for honest British merchants to sell opium to its population despite the protests of Peking (not ‘Beijing’) and offering wargamers the chance to have American and European troops of all nations in little penny packets of different uniforms, as we all like, in the Boxer rebellion of 1900. Chinese armies furthermore offer the chance to have ridiculous rockets, fireworks and bizarre musical instruments instead of, well, guns, and you have to like that. And there’s that Tom Cruise film about Samurai, as well. Plus, there’s hallucinogenics and sorcery and demons if you like that sort of thing, and Kung Fu Cinema – Once Upon a Time in China series, and Iron Monkey - who doesn’t like that?
The Vampire! Popular fascination with vampires goes back into the Gothic Novel period (c 1770-1840 ish) with Varney the Vampire and Dr Polidorus and Lord Ruthven, but flowers nicely in the Victorian age. Bram Stoker’s 1897 opus, is, of course, the Big One – another in which the actual book is hard to digest, but everyone knows the Christopher Lee version (plus we all remember that Hammer Films selected only the most voluptuous of female victims). You’d think that wargaming the subject of vampires would actually be difficult – they don’t stand around waiting for a fair fight, after all – but there’s loads of vampire figures.
Deep Under the Ocean is the place where, according to everyone from Verne through Lovecraft, you’ll find Atlantis, submarine pirates, fishmen of various kinds, Elder Gods sleeping, and trouble in general. I’d stay away myself, but it’s your choice.
Ancient Egypt was being dug up – sometimes with reasonable care, more often not – during the nineteenth century, and even before King Tut and his curse, it was clear that a lot of screaming would be involved. They didn’t hide those tombs for nothing. I have built two underground tomb models this year, with hidden passages and traps, and I’m up for a third. You can have actual ancient figures, undead Egyptians, mummies, princesses from long ago – what’s not to like?
England’s Green and Pleasant Land consists of everywhere outside London (and possibly nameless northern factory towns) and consists of charming villages, green pastures, foggy moors with bogs and crags, and red faced, cheery locals. Country houses too, of every kind, but mostly spooky and forbidding. Think Hound of the Baskervilles, John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps et seq. (although this goes on into the 1920s, and the moors are often Scottish), The Wind in the Willows. A prime place for witchcraft, cultists and mad scientist’s rural retreats; less welcoming terrain for Cockney gangs and Chinese Tongs (I did a game at one Historicon where Fu Manchu’s men, riding in a Butcher’s van, were forced to walk across a wind-swept Devonshire moor in full Chinese costume when the vehicle hit a tree. They don’t blend in well, nor do they have the shoes for it). The obvious advantage of this kind of locale is the chance to play in Victorian Britain without the issue of creating a whole table of urban buildings.
The Horror! The Horror! The supernatural plays a strong part in Victorian crime. Jack the Ripper was quickly imbued with more than human powers by the London public, as had the imaginary (but who keeps track?) Spring-Heeled Jack before him. The Hound of the Baskervilles relies heavily on eerie melodrama, and several Sherlock Holmes cases rely on plot devices that you’ll not see in Prime Suspect. So bring out your undead, because I know you have a box of plastic skeletons in your closet.
Evil Cults are very common, always busy with arcane plots to bring down the government, raise their dead leader, invoke demons, etc. etc.. They either involve mysterious people from mysterious places, or, more often, a selection of bank managers, local politicians and other respectable people who like to wear cowls or full pharonic regalia once in a while. Some cults will be genuine, full blown dangers to civilisation – after all, who else can bring forth alien life forms? Others will simply be people who ought to know better dressing up and prancing around monuments late at night.
Anarchists and Revolutionists are constantly threatening the proper social order. Whether they are fighting the oppressive empires of the Romanovs or the Habsburgs, or the robber barons of the United States, you’ll find small numbers of scruffy, wild eyed people with pistols and bombs of the large, smoking variety. When not fighting the establishment, they should be at odds with one another. Bakunin once bombed a meeting of his fellow anarchists on the grounds that anarchists should not hold meetings!
The Cheltenham Ladies Bombing Society are my own invention, reflecting militant women’s suffragists going a little further! The Victorian era was a period when, at the same time as male culture decided to define women as ‘the weaker sex’ – and female dress seemed designed to produce fainting from tight corsets – the movement to regain rights and improve the position of women became increasingly powerful. Besides, I have a dozen ladies with firearms, in formal and tropical attire, and I want to use them.
Magic, Mushrooms and White Rabbits. The Victorian concern for science and progress didn’t exclude all thoughts of magic, whether it was Lewis Carroll-style whimsy or genuine occult stuff. Often it was all blended in together. You can have the Order of the Golden Dawn, with poets and madmen and the teenage Aleister Crowley summoning nasty things. So, if you want to have Mad Hatters, or spirit mediums, or pre-Lovecraft horrors, there’s no reason why not. I must admit, I find the concept of Victorian elves and dwarves etc a bit unimaginative, but I did convert some Foundry war orcs, by means of Milliput top hats and neckerchiefs (and spears converted to broken lamp-posts) to ‘Rookery Trolls’.
So, all this sounds interesting (if it doesn’t, you’ve stopped reading long before now). You already have figures for the North-West Frontier, or Gettysburg, or Gravelotte-St Privat. How do you use them in a VAG situation?
The secret weapon. Under cover of night, with a cordon of tight-mouthed guards, the new battle-winning device has been brought to the front lines. At dawn, the Union defenders are shocked as the Rebel assault renews, led by a huge steam engines on giant wheels, firing rifles from portholes and three rifled cannon from revolving turrets. Before they run in terror, the defenders recognize that part of the leviathan was made from a giveaway toy from Burger King.
This could be Franco-Prussian or Crimean War, of course – it’s a historical battle with a new weapon appearing for the first time.
There are rumours of a strange cult rising in the mountains, and the elders of the Afridi clans shake their heads and seem afraid. A patrol of Bengal lancers rides out in advance of a company of Gordon Highlanders and a pair of mountain guns on muleback. They meet fleeing villagers, the remains of a Pathan warband wiped out horribly, and then --- a giant demon blazing in fire, and his human worshippers. Hmm. Might need the screw-guns, captain---
Again, easily moveable from one campaign to another, it simply requires something large and unexpected to appear. Giant apes and other plastic monsters can be found in many toy-boxes if there are budgetary issues involved in acquiring demons.
The Toronto Highlanders swung into column, pipes skirling, as the crowds cheered them down Yonge St. The Yankees would regret stopping British ships on the high seas, and with the Confederates threatening Washington and the Royal Navy blockading the American ports, there would be no Union reinforcements to stop the advance on Buffalo.
Simple Alternate History at work, although the desire of anyone to go to Buffalo, New York of their own free will brings in a fantasy element.
The lost ship went down off the cape, and so a recovery vessel moors in the area to look for wreckage and send down divers – or even a submarine. What the searchers find is astounding – unbelievable – and the [fishmen/Elder Gods/Atlanteans] are not about to let them get away.
This could either be played as a small scale ship game with lots of tiny alien vessels (or Greek galleys) or a 15/25mm game with boats of sailors and, well, whatever you like; ‘Atlanteans’ are Trojan Wars/Sea Peoples figures in my games.
Following those strays into that maze of box canyons was a mistake. Nebraska Slim realised it was another bad day on the range when the big critter reared up big as Texas, like a huge, giant lizard with teeth like barb-wire gone wild, and he remembered how he’d lost his Winchester in a poker game.
Cowboys and dinosaurs. I can’t understand why Louis L’Amour never picked up on this theme. It’s obvious.
The patrol of Uhlans/Cossacks makes its way through the village. These frontier provinces are always rife with sedition. The locals say nothing, as always, protecting their own. What they do say, when questioned in the way that cossacks or uhlans know well, they babble on about the old castle, and ungodly goings on up there. Right, then. Let’s have a look. And we’ll surprise them by approaching under cover of darkness.
Another ‘patrol finds ---’ scenario. Is it vampires, a mad scientist at work or what?
The troopship lurches forward, damaged by the storm, its coordinates unknown due to broken compasses and the kind of amateurish seamanship that rears its head at these times. Suddenly, a sail is seen. Many sails. The fleet of Viking ships draws up in battle-array to meet the crippled steamer ---
Time-travel. The chance to pit your ancients against your Victorians. And the fact that you bothered with even the slimmest of plot lines puts you ahead of those fellas in the DBM tournament ---
The experimental flyer crashed in the hills, close to the border. Maybe across the border. It’s important to see if the pilot survived and retrieve whatever’s left, before the locals scavenge the parts for scrap, or your friendly neighbours across the frontier decide to get there first.
Depending on where the location is, the friendly locals might be dangerous tribes or simply armed hillbillies with a scrap metal business. Of course, 20th century and modern wargamers will be familiar with the basic plot.
But I Don't Own Eighty-Three Victorian Buildings!
And you won’t need to. The obvious problem with wargaming in London, or any other city, is that you are faced with the problem of building a city to play on. This frightened me at first since, while you can buy 1/76 scale Victorian buildings from the British model railway makers, they all look very small with current 28mm figures, and making your own (as I do for most things) is daunting when you look at the complex architecture of the period.
I started with a two dimensional 2 foot square black cardboard plan of darkened streets with building shapes of red card, and circles of yellow to represent street lights. This was fine for rules development, although I wouldn’t take it to a public display. I used a wild west town as well, which was clearly wrong in the details, but allowed me to try things out. Some things became clear: first off, a game of running around narrow alleys and up staircases does not need a big table, so using a 2’ x 2 or 2’ x 4’ board was appropriate. Secondly, while I wanted to chase Saucy Jack through Whitechapel, it was much simpler to recreate Hampstead Heath or Hyde Park (trees, model bandstand from a Christmas shop, statues, model railway benches). Or we could go out on the river in steam launches, or lurk in the estuary reeds. Christmas decoration houses come cheap immediately after the holiday, too, and even if you can’t shave off the ceramic snow from the roof when you repaint them, well, make a white baseboard and have a scenario set in winter.
Another option for skirmish gamers is to create purely indoor settings for things like ‘the opera house’, ‘Bethlehem Hospital’, or ‘the house on the moors’, using a cardboard box as the set and building what amounts to interior terrain with cheap plastic 1/48th scale furniture etc. It’s like what Dungeon-masters do, only with flowered wallpaper and potted palms –
Card buildings are a possibility. Patrick Wilson of the Virtual Armchair General has a complete set for making New York in the 1850s – at least the grimier arts around Five Points – which looks spectacular when assembled en masse.
My current project involves a cardboard Christmas village, bought for, well, not much. The architectural shapes are terrific, but the glossy, 2-D outside will not do for our purposes. So I am, with a mixture of repainting and cladding the outside and the roofs in model railway brick papers and plastic card, slowly turning a very shiny New England Christmas village in no particular scale, into Victorian England in 28mm scale. This will be enough for a 2’x 2’ square at least, and will save me at least 50%, and probably a lot more, time than if I were to scratchbuild with foamcore.
Boilers and Funnels – Making VSF Contraptions
There aren’t any official guides to making imaginary vehicles – at least, not if it’s your own imagination – and there’s a lot of fun to be had inventing things that don’t necessarily have to work right! Leaving aside commercially available models (and there are some great ones) you can build interesting and possibly bizarre conveyances from any and all of the following: cardboard, paper, old pen tubes, deodorant packaging, children’s toys, brass tubing, those novelty pencil sharpeners --- OK, out of a lot of things. I am not a real genius at this (some of the G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T aficionados are) but an investment in toys from the not-hugely-successful Atlantis film, some oddball Hotwheels items, and some cheapo 1900 period cars, together with London War Room guns and a few broken model railway locomotives have allowed me to glue things together in a way that says “Victorian" and “probably won’t work". They don’t have to be heavy steam-driven things; Victorian coachbuilders specialized in light, elegant carriages that could be drawn by horses, so you can make your electric/clockwork devices quite small and open. You can push this as far as you like – I am looking at what amounts to the lower parts of a steam locomotive and thinking of attaching the wings from a 1/144 diecast WWI plane. Will it fly? Doesn’t look like it to me!
Several manufacturers make excellent small dinosaurs in metal, but the really big monsters are found in toy shops. These are made in plastic, rubber or vinyl and vary from cheap, inaccurate, and often horrible, to expensive and superb. With the exceptions of the most horrible, you can use all of them as long as you can find a way of colouring them the way you want. Simply priming and painting the normal way often doesn’t work – either the paint flakes off or, more alarmingly, never dries at all. I always soak the creatures in water with dish-washing liquid and baking soda for 24 hrs (this may be pure voodoo). The harder plastics will take paint. The softer, and the vinyl/rubber figures, might if you coat the model with thinned white glue. At the very least, a rubbery model can be coated in a very thin brown ink or paint wash, and then wiped with a paper towel to get some shadows in the creases and mute the factory paint job. My favourites are not the Carnegie Collection, found widely in museum shops and high end toy shops in N. America – at 1.40 scale they are clearly overscale – but the Wild Safari brand, which are maybe 25% smaller. ‘Glow in the dark’ models are good, since they seem to take paint well enough, and you aren’t paying more for the bad paint job that you have to redo.
I follow Conan Doyle in being very vague about whether the dinos on my table go together in palaeontological accuracy. I want big predators, small intelligent predators, flying predators, a few rare herbivores for lunch, some big ‘bronto’ types (which can and ought to be huge – get the cheap ones), some stupid stegosaurs to step on your characters accidentally, and some horned herd beasts, who defend themselves in a collective, organised sort of way.
Taking Your Collection Into Uncharted Territory
I didn’t start out with any figures that were other than ‘historical’. Na-hah. The British fought the Zulus and the Afghans. Well, except for that ‘Martian invasion’ thing, and even then I tried to spread the word that they were French. All my Old West gaming is ‘straight’ – Deadlands did nothing for me. I didn’t paint the Foundry Darkest Africa female warriors for ages, because they were not, well, -- there just weren’t any. And then I painted Tarzan, and it all spiralled from there, and all my western shootists that wore respectable clothes suddenly got a second job in Victorian London! Just as an example, here are some of the projects I have done in the last few years. None of them involve a huge number of figures that I didn’t have before.
- Darkest Africa. I know that there are some people who never include any fantastic, fictional or movie-oriented items in their games. I just haven’t met them. If you are playing this period, chances are you are playing Victorian Adventure Games.
- Darkest London. At first it was the selected westerners, and Chinese figures from the Taiping Rebellion to serve Dr Fu Manchu, and conversions for London thieves and bully-boys, because nobody made them yet. Always ahead of my time --- and a lot of diecast items from Days Gone etc, some horse-drawn, some with the amazing petroleum engines of Messrs Benz and Daimler. And then I bought vampires and zombies, as seemed inevitable by this time.
- The Lost World. Somewhere in the Amazon – well, it’s the African jungle terrain, with dinosaurs, and cavemen, and a handful of the Peruvian National Guard who are very, very afraid; OK, they are really old west Mexican infantry, how many people would know? And Teddy Roosevelt with some cowboys, and the German Luftschiffjagerkompanie, who descend from an imaginary zeppelin. I’ll make one, someday.
- Ancient Egypt. It’s all those DA adventurers in tropical kit again, some individually based Foundry Egyptians, and lots of fantasy stuff. You’ll need a tomb, but when you have it, that’s most of what you’ll need.
- Ruritania. That Transylvania stuff. My latest project, mostly incomplete as I write. I had the vampires, and some Russian Crimean figures, and Prussians. So I decided ‘why not have a couple of petty kingdoms about the size of my patio, who – naturally – equip their forces in cast off Russian and German uniforms’. Some Turks represent the ‘forgotten Pashalik of Grokk’, which was ignored in the 1878 treaties that divided the Balkans, because it lay where the separate pages of the Atlas come together. And, of course, English gents and Russian countesses and mad scientists from all over flock to the place for their holidays!
- The Lost World. This was my travelling convention game last year. It required that I build a modular 2 x 4 foot cavern - essentially a wooden box with a ravine and caves built inside to a height of 6" – but, beyond that, it was adventurers and scientists from my existing collection, some soldiers as escort for the Germans and gunfighters for the Americans, cavemen, some Bronze Age types as more advanced humans, and two boxes of Games Workshop LOTR goblins as troglodytes. Sometimes I use those as goblins, but don’t tell anyone.
None of these projects involved starting from scratch – in each case I had already got the bulk of what I needed in my historical collection already. OK, not the goblins --
Organising Your Own ExpeditionVictorian adventure takes place all over the world and beyond. Most of the rules for VSF/VAG have their own systems of organizing your little men, and the majority are skirmish-scale games. Here are a few ideas for building up that group of intrepid explorers and/or scientists, with perhaps a military escort; from then on, add a few more, and it’s a real expedition.
The privately funded party, as we know from books and films, consists of an intrepid leader, a crack-shot, a mad scientist, possibly a journalist and then –bizarrely but consistently – somebody completely unsuited to the journey. You know, a twelve year old boy who won’t follow instructions, an attractive nineteen year old niece, fifties teen-idol Pat Boone. Actually, real Victorians did much the same thing – how do you fancy a Saharan trip with two elderly Dutch women who’ve never been abroad before? This expedition may hire an escort, possibly even an adequate one, but more likely to be villainous ex-convicts and unreliable locals.
What I’d go for: The traditional mixture of oddball adventurers, light on the dodgy extras. A machine too unlikely for any government to invest in.
The British forces of this period were very competent at small campaigns, but conservative when it came to new technology. British VSF vehicles would most likely be steam-driven, and probably nautical in design, since the Royal navy was more interested in engineering than the army; RN land frigates etc might well be painted in yellow and black, with lots of shiny brasswork and scrubbed decks.
A British Home Service force should be primarily regular infantry, with some hussars or lancers, as scouts rather than battlefield cavalry; after all, it’s a skirmish-scale force. The Brigade of Guards was garrisoned in London, and expected to serve as its defence, so you could have Life Guards charging down mobs or the Scots’ Guards taking on anarchists – as they actually did at the ‘Sidney St Siege’ in 1911. Transport would be by train in most cases, so there’s little need for a baggage contingent.
What I’d go for: Highlanders and hussars. An ancient retired general who always thinks the enemy is ‘French’.
British expeditions in Africa were more often naval landing parties (with hand-drawn Gardner machine guns!) to punish intransigent locals, or private company operations where a few British officers led African askaris of fair-to-good quality, with trains of porters carrying everything. No cavalry allowed in most of tropical Africa, unless you want a lot of horses dead from ‘the fly’. The big government campaigns like the Zulu and Boer wars are really out of this category, although the Camel Corps of 1884-5, with its volunteers in goggles, is right out of fiction.
What I’d go for: The classic ‘Darkest Africa’ expedition, with guides and interpreters. It doesn’t matter if they can either guide or interpret.
India was a regular playground for small wars and skirmishes, so you have the classic ingredients – Guides, Gurkhas, Bengal Lancers, Sikhs, Gunga Din, small boys who act as spies. No wonder the Indian army sent forces to handle imperial problems all over the east! Probably not much in the way of steam things aside from the railways – they have elephants for the heavy work.
What I’d go for: A patrol of cavalry, squads of Gurkhas and Sikhs, mountain guns, gin and tonic.
France was Europe’s greatest military power until the disasters of 1870, and after that spent a lot of energy planning revenge. It was also fond of secret weapons and secret plans. Therefore, you might have quite a lot of elegant and ambitious engineering gems, many of them more impressive than effective (the same is true for Italy). France was a pioneer of aviation – take a look at the Aeole of 1890 for a beautiful flying machine – and put armoured cars in the field in Morocco before the Great War. A French expedition in Europe or the Americas should have line infantry in red baggy pantaloons, glossy cavalry, and at least one secret weapon that nobody has been trained with. An expedition to the tropics ought to have Colonial Marines, Zouaves, Turcos and, of course, the Foreign Legion; I think it’s fine to have a squad of each, TO&E be damned. Being veterans of empire, they have left the untested devices on a beach somewhere behind them.
What I’d go for: Infantry, hussars and something-in-a-crate at home, a few of everything abroad. Officers in sharp-pointed beards, who write heroic poetry, and duel a lot.
If anyone was seriously interested in advanced military science at this time, it was Germany. They’d have solid infantry, Krupp artillery, and cavalry that had decided not to engage in any more suicidal charges. In a VSF world, there’d be leviathans and zeppelins and everything else, powered by Herr Daimler’s petroleum engines. Panzer grey? Either that or the lozenge-pattern camouflage used on WWI aircraft, which the Kaiser said was ‘way cool.’ In the colonies, the Germans would be brutally efficient and efficiently brutal, with marines and loyal askaris and volunteers in snappy slouch hats.
What I’d go for: Infantry and my own black leather-clad Luftschiffjagers. Uhlans. Tiny airships. A bicycle tank. Shaven-headed officers with monocles.
Most people don’t associate Russia with modern developments. It’s all vast numbers of stolid infantry and dashingly vicious Cossacks oppressing the peasantry and losing to the Japanese. Yet there were several Russian efforts at building a flying machine in the 1870s, and pictures exist of an early Russian fighting vehicle based on two enormous – I mean huge – wheels, like a penny-farthing tricycle gone mad.
What I’d go for: Lots of infantry with bad officers. Cossacks. A flying machine that doesn’t.
Austria’s military reputation was fading, its army extremely skilled at putting down popular dissent (which is why we hear relatively little about vampires within her borders). Every second person’s a secret policeman. Still, you have to like the Hungarian uniforms, and – in the age of Freud and the Vienna psychiatrists – there’s room for battlefield mesmerism. I am not making this up. German writers of the nineteenth century made this up.
What I’d go for: Tyrolean rifles, hussars, clockwork machine that plays waltz music at high volume.
The United States was filled with enthusiasm for all things modern and scientific at this period, with Edison and Tesla developing electric-powered, well, everything. There’s naval development in the 1890s with classy-looking white ships, too. The US kept military spending under tight rein after the Civil War, so you have mostly the western army we know from films, bright-eyed volunteers, and the increasingly elite marine corps.
What I’d go for: Apache scouts, cavalry, something sensational with electric fields from Tesla. Teddy Roosevelt. Buffalo Bill.
I know, I know, what about the mighty Danes? The powerful Bulgarians? I’ll let you do the work on those.
Source Materials for Victorian Adventures
The touchstones for this genre are Wells, Stoker, Verne, Haggard, Burroughs, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jekyll and Hyde and Kipling. Of these, only the last four are any consistent pleasure to read for me, although Wells has his moments. That being said, more than one esteemed expert assures me that Burroughs is his favourite writer, so it’s all a matter of choice. Verne is allegedly far better in the original French, and is best read in the children’s editions that give you the story without the turgid prose. Wells can be dry, and overly concerned with a message – but you should read Moreau, Invisible Man, and the short The Land Leviathan. Fu Manchu gets better in the 1930s, when Rohmer writes in a snappier style. Haggard and Burroughs (in my opinion – stop hitting me!) have better ideas than they do writing skills. Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian romp, The Prisoner of Zenda is good in book or film version. There are a lot of writers that have passed out of public consciousness, like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson (horror) or George Griffiths (sci-fi) that are worth seeking out.
Modern efforts at this genre are usually more accessible to current tastes. I recommend William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine (1990) set in 1858 London, with working computers on the Babbage model, and Kim Newman’s vampire epic Anno Dracula (1992). China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) feature a Sci-Fi world clearly redolent of London. Michael Moorcock’s Oswald Bastable series features pirate balloon fleets. Harder to find are KW Jeter’s Infernal Devices (1987) and James P Blaylock’s Homunculus (1986) and Lord Kelvin’s Machine (1991). Not ‘VSF’ but full of rip-roaring adventure is the Flashman series by George MacDonald Fraser, which are probably the most popular work of fiction known to among wargamers. Worth seeking out amongst books for young people are Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart Trilogy - series of three volumes: The Ruby in the Smoke , The Shadow in the North , The Tiger in the Well  and the follow on The Tin Princess . You don’t have to be a teenager to enjoy these terrific adventures, which are dark and complex. Mark Frosts’ The List of 7 (1993) and The 6 Messiahs (1995) are fast, pulpy adventures. There is no end to the number of Victorian detectives on the market, some Holmes-related, some not. I particularly like Peter Lovesey’s ‘Inspector Cribb’ stories, and Michael Pearce’s ‘Mamur Zapt’ tales, set in Cairo shortly before WWI.
The comic book industry put out Alan Moore’s From Hell, and then the brilliant League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; others followed with Ruse, Scarlet Traces, the recent Mythstalkers and my own favourite, Girl Genius.
We’ve had a succession of poor-to-bad films, of which From Hell< was adequate, Gangs of New York marred by the surly DiCaprio, Time Machine and League OF Extraordinary Gentlemen disappointments. There are some good movies among the dross, however. The 2011 John Carter takes Burroughs’ original story A Princess of Mars and treats it with respect (although the protagonist’s ability to jump seems excessive). My favourite Victorian adventure films remain Zulu, The Man Who Would Be King, The Wind and the Lion, (both were shot back to back on the same locations), Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) and 1990’s The Mountains of the Moon. There are many versions of The Lost World, King Solomon’s Mines and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, some good and some bad. But enough of playing film critic --
Collecting Figures for VSF
I won’t go through all the ‘normal’ ranges in every scale for ACW, Colonials, Franco-Prussian etc. I’ll just mention some highlights, and some less obvious items. Aside from my use of 6mm armies against Martian invaders, all my own stuff is in 28mm, so I’ll focus on that.
The Darkest Africa ranges by Mark Copplestone for The Foundry and Copplestone Castings – and much of his ‘High Adventure’ and ‘Back of Beyond’ lines – are excellent sources for not only purely African adventure figures, but adventurers in general. His yetis look like members of Motorhead on steroids. Likewise, the Old West range offers civilians that span the continents.
The Foundry planned but did not follow through with a Victoriana range, although some nice pieces, such as Holmes and Watson, emerged. I use the Trojan Wars figures as Atlanteans, and the Bronze Age Europeans as denizens of an underground world.
Parroom Station is the range of mostly-Martian oriented figures designed by Bob Charette, and produced by Brigade Games. Bob has what amounts to the entire cast of LOEG (because they aren’t in copyright), ‘Masked Minions’, airships, and Martians of two and four armed kinds. These are very terrific indeed.
Brigade Games offer a small – so far – range of Victorian brawlers from Mike Owen, and a GASLIGHT range built around one Victoria Hawkes and her adventures in the ACW – there’s rocketeers, sharpshooters with flame rifles, female zouaves as well as neat bits and bobs for creating steam devices. Some nice-looking female adventurers. They also have one really big steam device!
Eureka Miniatures from Australia are the reigning kings of strange Victoriana. If you want Ned Kelly on a penny-farthing, or British infantry in power armour, German bicycle-tanks, cowled cultists or mechanics for your conveyances, this is the place to go.
Scheltrum Miniatures specialize in resin vehicles and the like, with a small range of figures to match them; I’ve not seen them as yet.
Redoubt Miniatures offer a specific Victoriana range, with big steam tanks, vehicle crews, Russian infantry and Cossacks, and British in home service dress. Good figures, definitely on the big side.
Grenadier Models are long gone, but sometimes you can find their excellent horror figures second hand.
HLBS also make British troops in home service dress, as well as unusual French types and a whole collection of dinosaurs.
RAFM made the original Space 1889 figures, as well as the Call of Cthulhu ranges. A bit small by present standards, but very neat, and the best monsters ever in many ways. Hidden among the Riel’s Rebellion range are British infantry in the 1878 blue helmet.
Pulp Figures are the descendents in many ways of the RAFM figures, although a touch larger. Ace sculptor Bob Murch is focussed mainly on the 1920s era, but his Chinese tongs, cavemen, and German seebattalion work well for an earlier period.
West Wind offers a huge Gothic Horror range. The first of these were mainly vampire/Transylvania oriented, the later arrivals travelling to London, Egypt and Haiti. I have painted up loads of these!
Reviresco are strong on things almost nobody else makes – odd things for boats, ‘deep ones’, divers in full gear, as well as a terrific Martian tripod, and many cardboard ships, submarines etc.
Maidenhead Miniatures make, well, voluptuous young women in fur bikinis riding on sabre toothed tigers and terror birds. Is it Victorian? Not really. Does it remind me of old cheesy movies with Doug McLure and Caroline Munro. Oh yes.
Graven Images have the new Disturbia range of very Victorian nightmare figures. I’ve only seen the pictures. I was very afraid.
Thrilling Combat Miniatures are great fantasy sculptor Bobby Jackson’s own range. These are gangs of New York figures, with packs for each group, cops, kids and rock-throwing women. Available through The Virtual Armchair General.
Over The Wire Games produce a small range of figures for a German invasion of Britain (which we must stand firmly against) and some sky pirates, Turks in gasmasks and others, all done in a slightly cartoon-1914 sort of way.
Wessex Games offer a small range of mostly adventurers for Voyages Extraordinaire.
Steve Jackson Games make a single steampunk–oriented pack, which I have never actually seen; shame, it had a robotic cat, and I’d like one---
Various Fantasy manufacturers make things you’ll want for Victorian adventures. Many fantasy figures are excellent in VSF as denizens of lost worlds or science experiments gone wrong. I like Reaper’s gargoyles a lot, as well as the Egyptian items and various monstrous types of theirs, while Games Workshop’s Kroot are clearly Victorian aliens. Their plastic zombies and skeletons are also good, the oversized heads and hands coming into their own. Black Orc Games offer freak-show figures that I’d pay a farthing to peep at, and giant apes in Roman armour, which I’d pay a ha’penny to see. I have a Ral Partha steam golem who is clearly the work of some mad scientist. If it looks the part, it’s fine.
Rules for Victorian Adventures
There are several sets of commercially available rules for this genre, and as usual it’s pay yer money and take yer choice. As someone who is writing his own rules, the temptation is to point out how horribly inadequate everyone else’s efforts are, which is not true in the case of any of these sets --
G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. is a very likeable set of rules that divides figures into characters and extras (who can die like flies when things go bad), and emphasises inventing your own vehicles. It is deliberately generic, in that it has no specific background save the time period, so players are free to (gasp!) use their own imaginations.
Voyages Extraordinaire is another generic game, with interesting mechanisms to make heroes almost invulnerable to swarms of insignificant types while swiping them aside. Meant for quite small numbers of figures. I’ve played it, and found much to enjoy.
The Soldiers’ Companion is the set of miniatures rules for Space 1889. A very amiable set that permits both standard historical games and exploits on Mars, with rules for war machines of different kinds, it was out of print for a long time, but sold by Heliograph through Amazon.com.
The Sword and the Flame, with it’s smaller scale version, The Sword in Africa, have no overt non-historical aspects, but have been converted many times over to include every period, addition and modification known to the hobby. If you want a cheerful set of easy rules with a deliberate old-movie feel, have a look at these.
Vampire Wars has a setting in time and place – sort of Transylvania – and rules that connect with specific West Wind figures. ‘Quality Dice’ of different kinds are used for each grade of figure. Some poor editing in the first edition, although this may have been changed. The companion volume expands the system to allow the use of the new figure ranges for London, Egypt etc - I don’t have this second part.
Deadland’s Great Rail Wars, is well-liked by many; I haven’t played it. It features dice, cards and poker chips as part of the rules system, and that sounds interesting to me!
Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment is (and I now quote Steve ‘the Angle’ Winter ) “a generic, high adventure RPG with a strong emphasis on miniatures and on using lots of extras in role-playing/skirmish wargames. It isn't specifically Victorian or SF but it includes rules for vehicles and a generic sort of magical effects. Works really well for skirmish games in which you have a few detailed characters with their faithful retainers against several dozen cardboard minions. Requires that you fill in some blanks, though, because of its generic approach (ie., it can be used for anything from D&D style fantasy to far future SF, sort of like GURPS simplified to the point where it actually works)."
England Invaded reads like a set of WWI rules – possibly a good set of WWI rules – which have been backdated to become VSF. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, although it implies a seriousness that is unusual for this genre. The introductory material about the German invasion is very well done.
Steel Leviathans is Redoubt Miniatures set of rules to accompany its own range. I haven’t seen this set, but the Redoubt website indicated that –as you’d expect – it’s strong on steam tanks and the like.
Aeronef deals with aerial combat between fleets of flyers and dirigibles in a small scale – the models are available from the same source. I’ve heard good things about it.
Bhoys! Is a set devoted to the pre-ACW New York gangs, and is noteworthy for rules mechanisms that permit a good deal of blustering and bullying before actual fighting takes place, as well as the random rock-showering known as ‘Irish Confetti’. Hilarious!
In the same vein – although I have yet to read them – is Gangland by Wessex Games, the people who did Voyages Extraordinaire and Aeronef.
In The Heart Of Africa, Chris Peers’ rules for the period of Exploration and Imperialism in "Darkest Africa", c. 1860 to 1899 with including army lists and campaign system. The research here is top-notch, and worth it even if you don’t play the rules.
Here are several variants on the “Took my Rigby four-bore out to shoot an Allosaurus" theme.
Bog-A-Ten, “ Being a lively distraction for gentlemen and ladies not of a nervous disposition, involving cards and miniature figures," according to the blurb. Sounds good!
Saurian Safari. Dinosaur hunting -revised edition contains the original rules plus two supplements.
Mammalian Mayhem. Wargames rules for big-game hunting prehistoric, modern and mythological.
Websites For Your Difference Engine
There are a huge number of relevant sites, so I’ll stick to a very few.
Forbidden Futures is Marcus Rowland’s massive compilation of Victorian SF stories for you to read, his RPG rules and all sorts of other things Truly a labour of love.
Major General Tremorden Rederring's Colonial-Era Wargames Page is an act of madness from Texas. Colonial and VSF gaming done with great enthusiasm, with marvellous vehicles and devices to be seen and built. Unfortunately, the website is only avaliable through various forms of the Wayback machine.
Jess Nevin’s G.A.S.L.I.G.H.T. home page features scenarios, conversion hints and a gallery of photos.
Another enthusiastic excursion into wargaming VSF can be found at Rivets and Steam
The Red Shadow is all about drama in the deserts of N. Africa. A great example of using wargaming in a wider ‘high adventure’ context.
I must go now, as a strange voice is calling from the conservatory, in a language I instantly recognise as Ancient Coptic. I reach for my Adams service revolver, but ----
(at this point the manuscript becomes illegible, and is spattered with what appears to be blood.)