Free RPGs And You-- Well, And Rob Lang, Anyway: An Interview with ICAR's Dr. Rob Lang

A column article by: Park Cooper

I was the cleric.

When my friends in school played role-playing games, I was the cleric. It allowed me to read comic books and, when called upon, look up, wave my hand mystically, and say "you're healed."

Sometimes I didn't look up.

But I had a great interest in RPGs.

Not PLAYING them, so much. But the world-building, and the character-making. The writing, and the imagination. And then I got into computer RPGs, like, say, Baldur's Gate, because it was RPGing with a machine to run the NPCs and monsters and roll all the dice and keep up with everything and crunch the numbers and make it easy.

But I still kept my hand in the water, metaphorically. Part of it was the story of how George R.R. Martin (and friends)' WILD CARDS series grew out of their superhero gaming. Part of it was that this stuff was still fairly imaginative and neat.

And so it was that I, partially through the power of Free RPG day ( came to monitor the websites of Dr. Rob Lang, a connoisseur of free RPGs, and to interview him.

Here, then, is the start of said interview:

Dr. Rob Lang: First of all, thank you for this opportunity. I love talking about myself.

Dr. Park Cooper: So first question: Why in heaven do you use that picture of yourself?

Rob: It was taken at a LAN gaming convention set in the middle of nowhere called Norfolk. There isn't much 'middle of nowhere' in the UK. You're normally only 2 miles from the nearest pub.

PC: Uh huh... right, because what if one needed a Guinness on short notice

Rob: My friend and I were taking random photos of each other and ourselves. And he dared me to use it as a profile picture on a forum. And when you get an ident - even a bad one - it takes on a certain life of its own.

PC: Okay, so you did. at the time. but STILL? ...must it be too late to kill the monster?

Rob: I will be changing it, I just need a haircut. I look like a beatnik at the moment.

PC: Mmmmokay...

Rob: I did try and take another one but I looked a bit like the sort of person you'd cross the street to avoid.

PC: So... next...

Rob: Hit me--

PC: My wife Barbara was delighted to hear that you, too, have a Ph.D.

Rob: Indeed. Best way to stay out of society for 8 years.

PC: "This is great-- you just don't have a lot of little doctor friends," quoth she

Rob: LOL! 

PC: Yeah that's what I said

Rob: I have loads of Doctor friends and frankly, together we make the least interesting party known to mankind. You could be stuck in a small room with people who collect pencils and have more to discuss

PC: So tell me about teh cybernetics

Rob: Cybernetics is the study of control in man, machine in animals.

PC: Ye-es... I once did a paper on Donna Haraway. That was years ago...

Rob: It is a series of mathematical ideas (such as feedback theory) that is then applied to real systems: electronics, chemical interactions, the earth's climate, Artificial Intelligence, Artificial Life -the list goes on. The chief fellow who best defined the term was a fellow who was, humorously, named Wiener.

PC: Yes... but tell me about YOU and cybernetics

Rob: Ah. I went to the University of Reading at the age of 19 and studied the Cybernetics course in the Cybernetics dept. It was a 4 years all-or-nothing Masters course. I built robots and coded AI. It was good fun.

PC: And how did you come to choose that?

Rob: I was offered a PhD scholarship toward the end of the degree. I took it and studied full time for another 4 years. At 15 our school advised us that we should choose our subjects (in something called A levels, they are exams you sit at 18) to fit the right degree. I'd always loved robots. I was fascinated by the idea of machine machines think

PC: Yes, we Americans know about your O levels and A Levels... but we call them OWLs

Rob: LOL!

PC: So, being a cybernetics expert, does that ever spoil certain geek experiences for you? Like, "Oh brother, Iron Man's armor couldn't work like that," or whatever?

Rob: In general fiction, you can switch it off and just enjoy the story and spectacle. If there are 'documentaries' or 'factual programmes' on telly to do with robots or artificial intelligence, I quite often find myself shouting incoherently. Normally, if someone starts using either Turing Machines (or Turing Tests) or IQ Tests to make a point, I gush blood from facial orafices.

PC: Big on reading sci-fi at a young age?

Rob: No. I'm rubbish at reading. I tried to read Asimov's Foundation Saga when I was young and it put me off. All the things kids normally read, I didn't.

PC: Then and now, eh?

Rob: I played with LEGO a lot. ...I still don't read much, tbh. I think I've read more in the past year than in my whole life! Before I started the Free RPG blog, I barely read anything at all. That's terrible.

PC: Then whence the RPGs? Or are RPGs and reading two whole different worlds for you?

Rob: My friendly local gaming store had a club attached to it. After years buying figures and painting them (mostly Games Workshop and mostly Epic) I went along to the club. I didn't roleplay there at first - I was too young compared to the other groups that were RPing. But I watched and learnt. It wasn't D&D-like roleplay - it's getting up and shouting, waving your arms about and arguing loudly. I can still see them in the mind's eye. There weren't miniatures - there were hurried maps, scribbles and questions. So I wrote my own and convinced some people at school, who had no idea what Roleplaying was that they should play. Star Fleet (which got its name changed to Icar in 1995ish) was born in November 1990.

PC: Now, how did the miniatures part come about? Did they appeal to you like tiny little model robots?

Rob: When I was about 9ish, a friend of mine knew about the FLGS and we went up there. We just liked the little figures at first. Then the chap in the shop suggested that we paint them. So we did that. That was fun. Then I think I got the Space Marine box set for Christmas - I think my parents bought it thinking it was a good source of figures. Then we realised it was a full on game! LOL. GW miniatures are just cool.


Rob: Friendly Local Gaming Store. (It's an American term, actually.) And GW = Games Workshop

PC: Now tell me more about Icar.

Rob: Icar is a free science fiction roleplaying game ;) That's not very helpful... It's a space opera with a crunchy scientific bit hidden away. The setting hasn't changed a great deal since 1990. The system has changed HUGELY since then. I think people are mostly drawn to it for the pictures. Is there anything specific you would like to know?

PC: Did being a cybernetics expert help with making Icar at all?
That's a "Is your PhD any use at all?" question!

Rob: In some cases, it is helpful. When tying down the science behind the setting, you tend to be surrounded by people who have a broad range of subjects from chaos theory to quantum mechanics. They are very useful for bouncing ideas off. Also, I have in draft the most complex and comprehensive treatise on Artificial Intelligence in a Sci Fi universe there has ever been! I'm not going to publish it - a distilled version is going into the next version of the rules.

PC: Hmm… So... I can grasp how you came to make your own... So... you made Icar...

Rob: Yep

PC: But so now... what do you do with it?

Rob: Ah ha!

PC: Try to disseminate it and get a fan base? Do you feel you're now done perfecting and polishing? Or not yet?

Rob: Until recently (the arrival of my son, Felix) I've been running Icar (on average) once a week. That's weekly since 1990. It's been online since 1996 and in a playable form since 1998. I'm turning it into the best thing I possibly can. The images are going to be print quality. The text is tightened, the background expanded. My aim is to make it the best free RPG there is. I appreciate that 'Best' is subjective. But it is a goal. My aim is to produce the next version (version 4) by my birthday - 16th April next year.

PC: Okay, so you made Icar... now tell me about your site(s)

Rob: Right. Firstly is 1km1kt. One Thousand Monkeys, One Thousand Typewriters It is a community for the authors of free RPGs and an archive of many, many free RPGs. I don't own it. I'm just the most chatty admin. It's owned and run by Keeton Harrington, known on 1km1kr as OUR GLORIOUS BENEFACTOR. He's a quiet but charming fellow who gives so much for nothing. If I was asked to highlight people who have done the most for free RPGs online, he'd be up there. It's a friendly community that has a reasonable amount of activity. I would like more. I would like to suck in all makers of RPGs and get them on there. Although the forum is excellent, the archive leaves a lot to be desired. So I'm writing a new one. A purpose made archive. It's going to be great when it gets to release. Next up... My blog, The Free RPG Blog

PC: >nods<

Rob: I felt that free RPGs weren't getting enough air time, which was a crying shame because free RPGs often have the following features:
1. They are free.
2. They are like nothing you've ever read.

(I'm going to expand on these)

3. They are complete games.

When I started using the net in 1995 - everything was free. Commercialisation was not really taking hold in the UK. It was great. I love the idea that people can do something for the love of it. Free RPGs are of that vein. Free RPGs can reach the very extent of the writer's mind. THAT's where the power is. They are not constricted by commercial requirements. By the very factor of being free, they can be about anything and everything. They can be extremely wacky. And that is great!

PC: Yes, this was what I was going to veer us into if you didn't go there yourself, but I thought you might...

Rob: Absolutely.

Next time: The interview goes there. Oh yeah. That's right. It goes there.

Once again, while you wait for the conclusion of this interview, here's Rob's two sites, again:


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