Forgotten Futures has a great premise: take the innovative and often strange imaginings of the early 19th and 20th centuries and use those pseudo-scientific ideas as a fertile ground for a role-playing game. It's this largely unexplored part of literature that piqued my interest in this book.
Forgotten Futures is mostly a rulebook that sets the framework for other books. Forgotten Futures has some curious layout and design choices that could definitely be improved. Much of the art consists of black and white sketches from old magazine, which only adds to the game's charm. Some of it is grainy photography that looks like it was cut out and pasted into the book however.
Another odd stylistic choice is the use of titles for every single example throughout the book. This seems like a waste of space. For example, a section on damage is titled, "It's Only A Flesh Wound...(1)". Then there's another example, titled, "It's Only A Flesh Wound...(2)". Yes, they're both examples of flesh wounds in Forgotten Futures. But when there's obviously not enough fresh ideas to supplement the catchy example titles, don't give them titles at all.
The book opens with an example of play. This example is curious because it deals with a conversation between players and the referee that's very disorganized and exceptionally complex. For example, Judy's character, Ella Mae Hickey, attempts to take a picture of maps on the bridge of an airship with the concealed camera in her hat, but it turns out the camera has all the subtlety of a coo coo clock. Eric, playing Captain Kirk T. James, wants to know if he notices (p. 4):
"Eric: Wow, really subtle. Do I notice this? Eric (the player) knows that Judy's character is a spy, but Kirk (his character) is unaware of Ella Mae's real identity. A little schizophrenia is sometimes needed in a RPG."
Huh? It's already difficult to distinguish between the player and the character. If I were new to role-playing, I'd be very confused. The exchange goes on for two pages in which the referee is not clearly identified (his name is Bert, but I would have settled for "referee"). The characters' names are also poor examples, as "characters with peculiar names and behavior aren't enough to sustain comedic interest." (p. 63). The example of play should just be excised - this is clearly a game for more advanced role-players who can appreciate the unique role-playing settings.
The next section contains a useful glossary, which should be placed before the sample of play.
The various worlds and campaigns that referees can place their Forgotten Futures games in are online at http://www.forgottenfutures.com. A list of printed publications follows. Forgotten Futures' most important aspect, the role-playing settings themselves, isn't introduced until much later. Placing that section before the characters and rules would help clarify the examples.
Characters and Rules
The Characters and Rules section is fairly straightforward. It begins with a helpful character sheet that is indexed with page numbers for each section on the sheet. Most noteworthy is the reference to sex and sexual orientation and its impact on the social stigma attached in a Victorian or Edwardian game.
Characteristics are purchased with character points. Statistics range from 1 to 7 for Body, Mind, and Soul. Skills can be purchased and calculated in a series of not-so-easy-to-remember ways, including averaging statistics, dividing them by two, and sometimes averaging statistics and then dividing by two. This needlessly complicates game play. Unspent points can be converted to Bonus Points, which can be used to shift the odds in the PC's favor.
Rolls are always opposed - one statistic is compared against another statistics on a table, and then that number must be rolled under 2D6. This makes sense for most rolls, but in cases where there's not an identifiable statistic to oppose the action, there are Difficulty numbers that can be assigned to an action, ranging from 1 ("would probably happen anyway") to 20 ("lifting an elephant").
The skills section is probably the weakest of what Forgotten Futures has to offer. A series of complex calculations are necessary to arrive at the results of each statistic. In role-playing games, especially in a game trying to appeal to new role-players, complex math can turn players off.
The skills are very generic, which makes the level of precision necessary for each calculation a bit odd. Martial Arts is the average of (Body Mind)/2. But what if the marital art is a soft style? Should Body and Mind be considered equally? And what about hard styles? Martial arts doesn't figure that strongly in the game anyway, so perhaps it's a moot point. Nevertheless, these kinds of stylistic choices should be reconsidered for the sake of streamlining the game.
Forgotten Futures is not all about combat. As indicated on page 33, "the combat rules take up a large chunk of this book; this does not mean that they are the most important aspect of the game." This philosophy is reinforced by the system itself. Wounds range from Bruised (B) to Flesh Wound (F) to Injury (I) to Critical (C) to...well to dead. As Forgotten Futures states, "there isn't any need to have a tick box for this!" It's clear that combat is not advisable in any situation. And there are no raise dead spells either. "Death is death, and is usually permanent." (p. 32)
Combat doesn't always make sense. All events happen simultaneously, then the results are assessed. As specified on page 33, "you can shoot a gun out of someone's hand, but he will have a chance to shoot you before he loses it." This certainly doesn't speak well for hostage situations - forget heroic actions, the guy with the gun to his hostage's head will ALWAYS get his shot off.
Damage involves yet more charts. With so many charts, and the nature of the book's binding, it's easy to see how the book could fall apart with frequent use. There's also a quick reference in Appendix F that covers combat, but this still doesn't make life easier on the binding. This is a game in dire need of a referee's screen.
There are some curious anomalies in the weapons and armor section, not the least of which is a kevlar vest and a "mini gun" from Terminator 2. Presumably, these are in the list for reference only, but for new players this only dilutes the feel of the genre. The section ends with information on other forms of damage, including impact, poison, electricity, asphyxiation, and fire.
Children and Dogs
This is a very interesting section, although it belongs in an appendix rather than in the main rules. Children have a great opportunity for advanced role-players (Little Fears, anyone?). Children PCs have to deal with the social stigma of being a child and the physical challenges of being small, staying awake, and keeping their attention focused. Dogs have similar issues, only they have an even more limited range of communication and manipulation.
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
This is Forgotten Futures' Monster Manual, of sorts. It only has 17 creatures, two of which are dinosaurs. The statistics of plants and animals are also fleshed out. For some reason, both Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaurus are given statistic blocks in this section instead of the Prehistoric Monsters section.
Here we have a variety of dinosaurs explained at their best and worst. Note that these are not the scientifically accurate dinosaurs portrayed in Jurassic Park. Nor should they be! These are dinosaurs as Victorians and Edwardians understood them, which means T-Rex dragged his tail, Brontosauri supported their immense girth in swamps, and everyone thought these critters were closer to lizards than birds. This issue is not addressed directly, although the artwork from a 1900 publication helps nudge referees in the right direction.
Prehistoric beasts are given their rightful due in this section. They are rightfully described as "primeval terror incarnate, tons of living, smelly, roaring, bad-tempered flesh, with enormous claws and teeth, rumbling guts, and industrial strength halitosis." PCs must make a Mind vs. Body check. Failure means running away in terror or standing paralyzed in fear. Now that's prehistoric terror at its finest!
This section provides a wealth of information about role-playing in a future Victorian/Edwardian setting in just two pages. It tackles such interesting subjects as discussions of sex (it just isn't mentioned), the treatment of women (considered inferiors) and ethnocentrism (all foreigners are primitive). These are staples of the genre that are very important to the feel of the game and deserve to be placed much earlier in the book.
This section superbly illustrates how to run an adventure and covers everything from scene to plot, from props to non-player characters. It provides a list of known and unknown foils (including Queen Victoria and Sherlock Holmes) for the players to encounter. Well-written, cohesive, and direct, this is clearly the primary focus of the game.
Historical Background and Timeline
Like the Running Adventures section, this part of Forgotten Futures does an excellent job in providing the referee with enough historical and theoretical background to get the campaign started. There's more in this section about the history of Europe than some high schools teach. The timeline is only slightly less useful, because it requires more research to identify some proper names. Nevertheless, this is a very important part of the game and is probably more useful to non-Europeans.
No futuristic vision of a Victorian setting would be complete without a multitude of gadgets and bizarre technology to round out the campaign. The availability and safety measures used in experimentation are briefly described. A list of scientific equipment and their prices rounds out this section.
This section details spiritualism, both the tenets of its belief system and the fraudulent means by which it was perpetrated on the gullible. False mediums are described but no rules are given for detecting the fraud. This section is intentionally rules-light, so the focus remains on role-playing and not die-rolling. A few example spirits and possible psychic adventures completes the section.
The Weird Science section is by far the most interesting part of the book. A multitude of pseudo-scientific theories is described, including theories about the ether, hollow earth, panspermia (like the movie Evolution), mystery airships (UFOs), Atlantis, animal magnetism, and more. Rowland provides a list of sources and possible adventures at the end of this section. If there's a reason to purchase Forgotten Futures, this is it.
Taking the Tunnel
The last section of the Forgotten Futures is an adventure that takes place in the completed Channel Tunnel between Dover and Calais. Queen Victoria is on board, and just as the British feared, the French intend to take the Queen hostage and storm through the tunnel to invade Britain. This is both an adventure and a supplement for further adventures using the tunnel. As a supplement, it does an excellent job. As an adventure, it's more of a skeletal outline. If you happen to be French, you'll need to have a sense of humor (they're cast as the bad guys in the way orcs are cast as bad guys).
The appendices include a list of Victorian measurements, other game systems Forgotten Futures can be used with, a list of the author's formidable writing credits, other sources for inspiration, and a rules summary.
As a sourcebook for other games, Forgotten Futures is an excellent source of ideas. I'm a fan of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic, and Forgotten Futures provides enough background to get a campaign set in pseudo-futuristic Victorian times started. Even better, most of the background material is copyright-free and easy to find on the Web or in a library.
As a game system, Forgotten Futures is less successful. The layout, examples, and cover art have enough flaws that new players are likely to pass it by. This is probably due to the games original online roots. A second printing and judicious use of a red pen should clean it up nicely. Forgotten Futures is one of those games that DESERVES to be on sale for $30, in hardcover, with lots of white space. I found myself pining for the multitude of Heliograph supplements about the various campaigns Forgotten Futures uses as source material. There's enough in here to tempt me to buy Space: 1889, sight unseen, just to use the settings in Forgotten Futures. Since Heliograph has permission to reprint Space: 1889, this might be intentional.
Forgotten Futures is young by RPG standards. It shows promise, but it still has some growing up to do.