GrogHeads Interviews Terry Sofian of Hive, Queen and Country

frontier wars 728x90 KS

We connected at Origins, and continued the electronic conversation afterwards ~

Corinne Mahaffey, 30 July 2016

I sat down for an email interview with Terry Sofian, the creator of Hive, Queen and Country, a steampunk world where the European powers are, with the help of the mineral aerolith, extending their imperial reach to the rest of the solar system. They recently ran a 3 day game at Origins wherein a hive in Brazil was besieged by American and British forces.


What are your games and world about? 

Our games are about telling stories in an altered Victorian era, one in which the already stunning challenges of exploring frontiers on six continents, the seas and the polar ice cap, making scientific discoveries that fashioned the world in which we live today and developing amazing new technologies, are compounded with air and space travel and explorations both in deep space but also on several worlds within our solar system. The stories can be about fighting hordes of angry alien bugs. They could be about building a city on Venus. Perhaps they are about solving murder mysteries on any of a number of worlds.

The Hive, Queen and Country Universe was started as a sandbox in which a bunch of folks could get together to and discuss ideas set in such an altered time line. We designed the Universe to be a place where gamers, writers, artists, model builders and any other creative types could build “sand castles”. The games and world are designed to provide a framework for people to work within.

HQC in action at Origins

HQC in action at Origins

The people who enjoy your games also like X – What games are similar? 

Stars of Empire has mechanically evolved from Hacktastic (a now out of print Fantasy game from Black Pigeon Press), but in terms of world design, we certainly draw inspiration from Space 1889. In terms of level of detail, people who like Empire of the Petal Throne will find a lot to look into. Classic Traveller, with its emphasis on the economics of space commerce, is also something we have tried to take into consideration. We aren’t all things to all people, but we try and have a wide variety of ways that folks can play if they wish.  We also look to the Firefly TV universe, a setting that melds a “Wild West” frontier vibe with science fiction trappings.


What is the inspiration?  What made you make this world and these games? 

I have always been interested in history and the Victorian is one of my favorite eras. The period has everything, except space travel, so we added that! The idea that the Victorians, with their drive and competitions between nations and individuals should have space travel is exciting. It dates back at least to Verne and Wells and then Edison’s Conquest of Mars by an American named Serviss. Looking at how aerospace technology accelerated science in Our Time Line, one can only wonder what Victorians like Brunel, Rhodes, Churchill, Roosevelt, Bismarck, Napoleon III, and others would have done in a universe that allowed them to economically put colonies on worlds within our solar system. It would have been like throwing gasoline on a bonfire.


About when does your world split off from Victorian history, and why then, not earlier or later?

We had originally had the split in 1865, when John Lubbock, Later Lord Avebury, discovers aerolyth. There was a lot of debate about how the ability to lift objects doesn’t make for viable airships without a more complete understanding of aerodynamic forces and how an object would be steered and stabilized in three dimensions. We wanted it to be plausible that inventors and engineers could rapidly design safe and efficient machines soon after the discovery of aerolyth without a long period of trial and error.

We found our solution with George Cayley. Cayley was an archetypical Victorian polymath. He experimented with aviation and a variety of other mechanical devices. In Our Time Line (OTL) he was the first person to name the four primary forces, Lift, Drag, Thrust and Weight, that would impact a flying object.

We found our solution with George Cayley. Cayley was an archetypical Victorian polymath. He experimented with aviation and a variety of other mechanical devices. In Our Time Line (OTL) he was the first person to name the four primary forces, Lift, Drag, Thrust and Weight, that would impact a flying object. He did this just after 1800. By the 1830s he had developed a number of airfoil designs and begun their scientific testing on a machine called a “whirling arm” that allowed him to measure lift and drag. He built, and possibly flew, a man lifting glider. The Wright Brothers credit him with providing the data they needed to build their successful machines. In OTL his work gets somewhat marginalized between his death and the beginning of the 20th Century. In HQC this doesn’t happen. Cayley publishes widely and his experiments are taken up by others.

First, hang gliders, and then sail planes, become fairly common, and he lends his name to the entire realm of Heavier than Air flying machines. Only the lack of an engine capable of producing enough thrust to weight to allow a Cayley Flyer to take off and sustain itself in the air is missing. By the American Civil War a number of very light steam engines become available which allow very short duration powered flights. By 1865 the English Channel is crossed by a steam powered Cayley. However, the joy of its pilot and designer Félix du Temple de la Croix is short lived, as Avebury’s aerolyth vessel Pegasus arrives where the aeroplane landed and, attaching a few ropes to the lightweight machine, effortlessly picks it up and carried it back across the Channel to France and then, re-crossing grey waters, flies on to London and deposits the machine in Hyde Park.

In HQC, Sofia Kovalevskaya discovers the “rocket” properties of aerolyth and designs the Imperial Russian Lunar program which lands on the Moon in 1870 when she is just 20.

We also advanced the field of road steam traction by allowing Goldsworthy Gurney, another Victorian polymath (there were a surprising number of them), to be economically successful with his Steam Carriages after 1827. In OTL they were discredited and entrenched political and economic interests managed to outlaw them through acts of parliament. In HQC those political enemies are caught sabotaging a steam carriage, which leads to a fatal incident. This pushes public and political support towards favoring these road engines.

The road engines do not compete with railways, but instead with horse drawn street cars and omnibuses. These were historically very important, but in HQC will not survive competition with steam powered machines. These machines will, in turn, drive the development of high power to weight steam engines, and then electrical and finally internal combustion engines, which will have their development accelerated several years ahead of what was seen historically.

We also wanted I. K. Brunel to play a part and, since the main action takes place after his death, we save him and allow him to live until 1870. Finally, Babbage engines just seem required, so Charles Babbage is less of a pill than he was historically and he, Maudsley, and Lovelace design and build effective computers. These become economically successful and allow advances in a number of other fields.

One other gentleman we saved was Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier who died in The Terror that was part of the French Revolution. In HQC he escapes to America and forms a company with another expatriate DuPont, which helps develop a number of chemical breakthroughs by the mid-1820s.

Again we did this so technologies we were interested in portraying broadly in the 1880-1900 part of the HQC timeline, flying machines, armored combat vehicles, space travel, computing and others, would have a “prehistory” within the game’s timeline.

More HQC at Origins

More HQC at Origins

What feature are you most proud of? 

I’m excited that so many folks like what we do. That we can attract folks to play at Origins every year is extremely gratifying. In terms of mechanics of the miniatures game I am pleased that we can run eight turns in four hours with brand new players. I am really proud of our “invention” rules. They are a change up from the general run of rules, because they are more complex. This was done on purpose. Inventing and designing projects is a complex process in the real world. It should also be tough for a character. A player should have to think hard about what they are doing and should need to input in-game resources, as well as their own time and mental effort to be part of the process. The Inventions rules do that, and I feel they do it very well!


How do the invention rules work?  Do you have an example?

This is a mechanic of which I am particularly proud. It indirectly uses a character’s skills to determine success. It also forces a player to use character creation points and other in game role playing to get where they want to go. The basic idea was an invention, a scientific breakthrough or a large engineering project is a grand endeavor. It requires time and effort on the character’s part (99% perspiration-1% inspiration), it often will need capital investment to fund the research or build the machine or whatever is the goal. It also requires the successful application of knowledge, theory and skills to make everything come together.

For a character to get a project off the ground they need to spend in game time on it, they need to gather resources, which are generally regarded as money and they have to spend character generation points. Projects come in a number of categories, you could try and develop a cure for malaria; or build the longest suspension bridge on Venus, or perhaps work one something less cutting edge and improve a gasoline engine by 10%. The complexity or reach of the project determines how difficult it is, and so the cost in game time, capital and character creation points. The simplest projects may take only a few weeks and cost five points and a few hundred pounds or dollars. A Project that is Herculean, the most difficult level, may require years, hundreds of thousands of pounds and 50 character creation points.

The cards are used to determine how successful the project is in five areas: health of the Inventor, Technical solution of the problem, financial success of the project, long term success of the project, and the effect the project has on the inventor’s reputation.

A project may be under funded and hurried and this makes the chance of success less. Basically determining success is a two part operation. First the player and referee discuss the project and decide which skills and attributes are likely to impact the success of the project. In almost all cases Intelligence and Will are two that are germane. If the project was a bridge, skills like engineering and metallurgy would be key. Once the list of these are finalized, the player makes an opposed roll against each of these, with the level of the project determining the opposition roll level (anything from a straight D20 for the easiest projects to D20+50 or more for the hardest). The player may only select up to nine stats against which to roll. For every success they may draw a single card from a standard 54 card deck of playing cards. These cards are drawn face down.

The cards are used to determine how successful the project is in five areas: health of the Inventor, Technical solution of the problem, financial success of the project, long term success of the project, and the effect the project has on the inventor’s reputation. The higher the cards the better the results; except for certain special results (Drawing the Ace of Spaces for health is obviously a terrible thing).

The player plays a total of five cards in order representing the above areas. If they have any extra cards they may discard one of those played and replaces it with one that has not yet been played and is still face down. Since the player has at most nine cards it is easy to see that they may have a less than perfect result when completing a project.

The player plays the first card face up and this is the card for health effects. Many inventors and engineers have been killed by their work. Others may have found new health and wellbeing in a job well done. A tremendous technological solution may not be what the market is looking for and doesn’t necessarily lead to fame and fortune. Fame itself can be fleeting, or a great mind from the past may be rediscovered generations later. For these reasons the five results are in no way linked. Great success in one are doesn’t mean success in another, it may be balanced with tragedy or abject failure.

What comes out of this process should not simply be a number of results read out of the tables. It should be reframed by the referee or player as the tale of their efforts.

To frame the concept let’s look at a historical example.

The Brooklyn Bridge was designed by John Roebling and his son Washington. John was killed by tetanus which he contracted when his foot was shattered while surveying one of the construction sites. His son was crippled for life by decompression sickness from the long hours he worked in the high pressure of the caissons beneath the piers. The bridge itself was a masterpiece of engineering and the Roeblings stand out as two of the greatest civil engineers in American history. To this day that structure is renowned as one of the greatest and most beautiful in the world. Even with all that, the effort nearly bankrupted the Roebling companies.

In this case the five cards would have been something likeHQC-Cards

  • Health – Ace of Spades: John’s Death and Washington’s lifelong disability.
  • Technical Solution – Diamond King: High level of excellence.
  • Long Term Success – Joker: A hundred years later the Brooklyn Bridge is considered an integral part of the New York Skyline. People come from the world over to see and walk across Roebling’s achievement.
  • Reputation – Ace of Hearts: The Roeblings are known as some of the greatest bridge builders in American history.
  • Fortune – Six of Clubs: The effort nearly drove the Roeblings into bankruptcy. They did recover, but it was very tight.

So the idea was to produce a system that wasn’t simple and allowed a lot of player interaction with the stats of their character. Results are almost unlimited and can mimic almost any historical result, from the technical shortcomings of the QWERTY keyboard, but is enduring success, to the flash in the pans of certain types of patent medicines (especially those related to radium) that were initially extremely popular and lucrative but have left decades long legacies of illness and death, and are now proven to be completely fraudulent.


What would you have done differently, were you to begin again?

I might have shopped my ideas harder to larger publishers. Being a publisher myself has been a bit of a hassle. That being said having total control over what I do does have its merits. It also leaves me the only person who can except blame for mistakes.


What is your philosophy of game design?

Story comes first. The game universe is a framework in which people tell stories. The game rules give structure to those stories, the way that the laws of our reality constrain our actions. The internal logic of the Universe constrains the actions of the characters. The game mechanics are the interface between that framework of the game universe and the actions of the players and referee. I believe that mechanics should limit what players and referees can do, but shouldn’t get in the way of storytelling. This is a tough balance. But an ideal set of rules would be nearly invisible during a game session.

More Origins action

More Origins action

Name three other game designers that impress you and why.

Mark Miller, the designer of original Traveller, Richard Tucholka, one of the key writers of The Morrow Project and a number of great games like Fringeworthy since then, and finally, Professor M.A.R Baker, the driving force behind Empire of the Petal Throne. All these designers not only developed solid rule systems but amazingly detailed game universes. All these games have survived in the market place for decades and “earned” a dedicated following that has been swept into the storylines these Universes. Most of these Universes have gone through several sets of rules, and sometimes these rules are very different than the original set. I think this says that it’s the setting is critical to a “Game’s” long term legacy.


How do you balance realism, detail and playability?

In an RPG I think it’s very important to include as much detail as possible and to let the people in the campaign, especially the referee, decide what to keep and what to ignore. In real life we all filter out the things that aren’t important to us. I think that in an RPG setting this is just done more explicitly.


If you could change one thing about the game industry, what would it be?  Wave your magic wand. 

I can’t say that I’m deeply enough in the industry to say what I would change. I am excited that the cost of entry into being a producer is now so low. RPGNOW and other online systems, as well as print on demand, allow writers to get into sharing their ideas and imagination far more easily and cheaply than ever before. This means that there are more options for players than ever before.


What question should I have asked? 

What is in the future for the game?  The future is actually here right now. We have an active Kickstarter that we hope will fund three books, a pair of core books to be the second edition of the Stars or Empire role playing game and a vehicle book.

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