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Saturday 13 June 2015

RPGPundit Reviews: Lowell Was Right! - A Very Different Now

This is a review of the RPG "Lowell Was Right!", published by Flying Mice games, written by Clash Bowley and Albert Bailey.  It's a softcover book with a full-color cover featuring a redheaded woman in what appears to be a Victorian dress (though we find out later that it's not), and holding a strange sort of rifle. The book is about 190 pages long, and other than the front and back cover images and some logos has only three pieces of interior art.

At first glance, Lowell appears to be a steampunk-sci-fi game. However, we are emphatically told, directly in the book, that this is NOT what it is.  The difference is apparently that Steampunk implies a kind of fantasy or quasi-science set in the 19th century.  Lowell, instead, is based on carefully researched historical study (two years worth, according to the author) of what the prevailing scientific theories of around the 1880s were, and made the game setting with the assumption that all of these ideas were actually correct.  And it's not set in the 19th century, but in an alternate present.  The Lowell in question, from the title, is named after the guy who claimed to see Canals on Mars.

Now, the game system on the whole is the same as what Bowley uses in most of his games, so I'm not really going to bother outlining it yet again.  You can go see information about that in any of the other dozen or so reviews I've done of his other books.  I'm going to focus on what's different here.

Mainly, what's different is setting: an "alternate present" game, which asks the question of what the world would be like today if victorian ideas about science were right.  It seems an odd sort of project, but then again, most of Bowley's are.

This book is, in a way, very much 'hard' sci-fi; in that the theories being dealt with were carefully researched and the rules stuck to.  What are they?  The intro to the book provides a convenient list:

Astronomical theory: the solar system is less than 100K years old.  The sun has been very gradually shrinking, and planets were created from mass it threw off. Thus, the farthest outer planets are the oldest, the ones closer to the sun are the youngest (something that was already present in Space:1889).  This allows Mars to have had an older civilization than Earth, and to now be a planet in decline.

Panspermia: Life is everywhere in the universe; developing anywhere that has sufficient gravity and atmosphere.

Atomic Theory: the atom is the smallest thing there is. It can't be "split".  There's no radioactives. Advanced technology can, however, change one type of atom into another.

Evolution: the understanding of evolution is that life evolves in response to natural environmental factors and not due to random mutation; thus, evolution happens relatively very quickly (within a few generations).

Electronics: dual current theory, meaning that things like most forms of radios, television, or electronic-based computers are impossible.

Geology: Catastrophism suggests that geological change happens much faster than in our reality.

So all of this creates a world that is very different from our own in the present day.  Without the kind of home entertainment (radio, Tv, computers) that we have, there's more of a going-out sort of culture.  Films, live shows, and books are more important.  There are still non-home computers but they're big things run by mechanical means.  There's anti-mass jet dirigibles.

Then there's aesthetic changes, which I think are a bit less based on science as on author's choice:  hats are still worn, women wear long dresses.  Popular music took a different, but not totally dissimilar direction to our own (I think the author's choice here was based on the fact that electric instruments would not work like in our reality).

And then there's the real sci-fi stuff:  panspermia means that of course, there are Martians.  Not only that, but the Martians took ancient humans from Earth as slaves, and their descendants were already all over the solar-system by the time the Earth humans began to travel to space.

The next significant detail in the book is one that, while listed as optional, I think is a lynch-pin of making the whole game worthwhile: the use of "Associations".  Players will generate not only their characters in Lowell, but also the group they belong to, using a system that combines random generation with point-buy mechanics.  Groups are generated through the use of "capital" (points), can thus be large or quite small, and can fit one of a huge variety of types (which could be either selected or randomly rolled).  Some of the types include a trading company, bounty hunters, smugglers, espionage, explorers, a martian 'house' (think clan), a religious group, couriers, a theater troupe, researchers, or a salvage company.  They can be a private group, part of a larger organization or corporation, state owned, or a number of other similar options. You use the capital points to determine things like where the group's home base is (some possibilities include an asteroid, a lab, a hollowed-out mountain, a floating tower, an undersea habitat, a spaceport terminal, a hunting lodge, or a desert oasis, among others), whether the group has guards/security in their employ, if they have spies/agents, what kind of vehicles they control, their medical facilities, if they have psionic or etheric devices in their possession, the type and quality of their library, trainees in their service, heavy equipment at their disposal, and laboratory facilities. Over time, the company can acquire profit which allows them to expand.

There are a variety of baseline races (species?), aside from Humans, to play: Martians for one, which are a kind of humanoid armadillo-people. They have a complex social system based on the fact that almost all martian births are quadruplets. There's "Mars Humans" too, who are the descendants of the humans kidnapped as slaves by martians thousands of years ago. They have become quite different from regular humans because of the difference in gravity and density of atmosphere on Mars, and can't actually move around on Earth (or Venus) without the use of an exoskeleton aid.
There are also Venusians (intelligent bipedal dinosaurs; in following with the premise that Venus is a "younger" world than Earth); and Galileani (the term for the species found on the various moons of Jupiter, who are all vaguely similar to large humanoid fruit-bats; there are subspecies for Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto).

Character creation is done very similarly to most of the other books by Bowley, though initial stats are generated based on a template depending on which race you choose (not something that always comes up in other games by this designer, since many of his are 'historical' games), and there's more structure than in most of his games in terms of choosing background skills, and a kind of skill-tree based on the type of career you choose.

The mechanics are largely similar to those of other Bowley games as well, though he includes the use of 'traits', which are personality details that PCs can choose (examples include "hot-tempered", "pious", "greedy", "poker-face", "sly", "sarcastic" and "foul-mouthed", among others).  Traits have values that are added as a bonus to actions if the GM judges that the trait is applicable to the attempt. Each trait can only be used once per session.
Characters can also have 'edges', which are bonuses based on environment, examples include things like "Extreme weather" or "Shadow", which would apply in snowy environments or in the dark.
Characters also have "spheres of interest" (which include 'domestic', 'intellectual', 'political', 'cultural' and 'religious').  These allow for checks at +0 in areas that a PC doesn't have a specific skill that applies, with larger scores in the sphere allowing for additional bonuses.

The skill list is considerably shorter than many other Bowley games, with skills being fairly broad and overlapping. Skills are general to the field up to a +2 bonus, after which a specific expertise must be chosen.

There are psionic rules as well, on the premise that in 1880 science had not yet discounted the possibility of 'scientific' reasons for mediumship, etc. Psionics work as skills but require the expenditure of "psi points" to activate. Psi powers include telepathy, psychic healing, psychokinesis, clairvoyance, dowsing, psychic sensing, precognition, psychometry, aura reading, mediumship, retrocognition, psychic stun, and illusion.  The section explains how 'ghosts' work in the setting, where it is clear that ghosts are not actually the spirits of the dead but a 'psychic residue' of impression left by the deceased (a theory that is still popular in certain spiritualist circles).

After a few different task-resolution systems that all nevertheless make use of the same stats just in different ways (a curious common feature of most of Clash Bowley's games), and the NPC rules that include some decent random tables, we get to the section on technology. We get detailed explanation of some of the fantastic Victorian-science-derived technological marvels of this alternate present; including deep space drives (which work though ether turbines, arc engines, and mass drivers), ground-to-orbit systems through anti-mass, power systems (hydrogen fuel, light panels, supercapacitors, and the aforementioned anti-mass), etheric devices (like ether vortex reactors, which are huge machines that can create artificial elements to create wondrous materials that make some of the other tech possible), and psionic devices (like psionic lenses based on crystals that concentrate psychic abilities, psychic resonators that enhance the range of psionic powers, psionic noisemakers that annul psionic powers in a limited area, and pharmaceuticals that can enhance or quell psychic abilities).
There's also enhancement mechanical devices like the martian exoskeletons, one-way glass and transparent aluminium, martian flame guns and electroguns.  Of course, we also get long lists of more standard equipment.

There's also a large section on designing and using spaceships. These are built with points, and the build system is relatively complete, but maybe doesn't go into the level of detail as one might expect from the author of the In Harm's Way series.  There also aren't any pre-built templates, which guys like me (who have no interest in building starships from scratch) would likely find annoying.

The section on the solar system covers the main area of action in the game.  The outer planets froze over as (according to Victorian ideas of how solar systems worked) they came out of the warm band of life-sustainable heat while the Sun shrank away; only Jupiter's moons retained life because of the planet's own radiation.  As per scientific theories of the time, the area that now holds the asteroid belt was once a planet, that was destroyed in a war with the Martians.  As well as Jupiter's moons, Mars and Venus are the main inhabited planets; Mars having an old and decadent civilization as that planet slowly dies, while Venus is like earth would have been long in its own past, still in the "dinosaur era".
We get decent if short descriptions of these planets, complete with planetary maps; and rules governing the effects of different levels of gravitation.  The section on the non-earth planets covers about 18 pages.

In a lot of other games of this sort, I've found that the Earth is the one planet that gets neglected.  Space:1889 had details on Earth, but mainly in its Conklin's Atlas sourcebook.  Rocket Age likewise doesn't have almost any detail on the Earth.  But Lowell Was Right manages to do something really interesting here: we get a "geopolitics generator", where you can roll a random amount of randomly determined 'great powers' that run the world in this alternate present.  Among these are "Nazi Europe", the "Pan-Arab Union", "Imperial Manchu China", "Great Brazil" and many others (including "Mormon Zion"). The idea is that after rolling for the great powers, the GM should develop a 'relationship map' explaining how these powers in particular came to rule the world and how they interact with each other. To assist with this, the GM can roll decade by decade events for the defining events from the 1880s until the present and choose some cultural traits for each great power.

This is then followed up by a section that lets you randomly generate a Martian or Mercurian house, which includes a martian name table and a table on details on martian cities and martian hinterlands (and likewise for Mercurian equivalents). There are also random tables for Martian religions, and another for Earth Martian religions (which are usually based on ancient Earth cultures, as Martian humans were taken from Earth in the distant past).  You also get tables on Venusian City-States, castes, and cultural oddities; and then Galileani cities and Hinterlands.

So to conclude about this game;  I would say that "Lowell Was Right" has an unusual but interesting concept.  If you like weird kind of alternate-reality sci-fi games, you'll certainly find it worthwhile.  It is also probably the tightest design yet by Clash Bowley, who seems to be figuring out some tricks for making his character creation process more interesting and his systems smoother.  The Alternate-Earth generation system is great.

I doubt that before Lowell came along anyone was sitting around thinking to themselves "boy I wish I could have an RPG that is set in 2015 but in an alternate present where Victorian ideas about science turned out to be all correct".... except Clash Bowley himself, of course. Nevertheless, I bet a lot of gamers, if they find out what this game is about, will find it worth exploring.


Currently Smoking:  Italian Redbark + Image Latakia


  1. Thank you very much Pundit! As always, an excellent review! Also, thank you for noticing I am getting better at this - I am always trying new things to improve my games.

    1. Thank you! And yes, I think you improve regularly as you go along, but this one seemed to tie a lot of the improvements together at once.

  2. Having recently finished reading "The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the beauty and terror of science" by Richard Holmes I find this particularly fascinating.

    Thanks. I do think I will want to take a closer look at this game. Even if I don't use the setting as is, I'm thinking that there's so much fantastic conceptual fodder here as to spawn a thousand worlds based on the concept. Great find. Thanks.

    1. The game pdf is Pay-what-you-want at Drive Through and RPGNow, so you can look it over without spending anything but some time.


  3. Dammit wrote a couple hundred words in comment and it got lost after hitting the publish button....!

  4. Mr. Bowley excels at making games that cover genres and settings otherwise neglected in the "here's why my elves are different" RPG industry. Gotta admire anyone who makes a game about playing baseball or WWI fighter pilots.

    1. Thank you, Matt! I do tend to be attracted to the smaller, weirder niches in our hobby... :D

    2. You certainly do. You do it in a good way, though.

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