Monday, May 13, 2013

History of Steampunk & Victoriana RPGs (Part Four 2007-2008)

MEET THE NEW TROPE
There’s a few less items here than on previous lists. In fact a couple are edge-cases that I opted to leave on. I suspect that may be random, but it does coincide with the arrival of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. That shook up the gaming industry and forced d20-heavy companies to start looking at where they wanted to go. At the same time, gaming pdfs also settled into comfortable acceptance- with stable lines of distribution and more tools to easily use them at the table. Before they’d been revolutionary, now they became a standard feature of the trade. Outside gaming, the same kind of shift happened to Steampunk as a genre. It was simply here- in covers, in cosplay, and in spec-fic generally. Look at the advancement of graphics and images related to the genre. A few years before many publishers used the same gear clip arts and sets of details. Now they had thousands of new visual approaches. Novelty had well and truly worn off. You can see some of that by the acceleration of books under the genre. I’m not saying all of those were cash-ins, but some were. Any genre that hits a level of popular consciousness attracts attention from publishers looking for the next hot thing.

That’s not a bad thing, but feels a little odd to me for a genre which remains so ill-defined. Is steampunk purely an aesthetic, or is there some deeper resonance behind it? It something simply ‘looks’ steampunky, is it? More than most other genres, I’d say yes. But then again, I’m trying to assemble a wide-ranging list of rpgs here…

LOGIC DEMANDS
I left some interesting games off this list. Rocketship Empires 1936 for example looks quite cool, but falls more into the pulp category (and a later period). I’ve mentioned that for the most part I leave Napoleonic era material off these lists, which means the excellent Duty & Honour doesn’t show up here. I’ve also left off several interesting free rpgs: The Holmes and Watson Committee; Inland Empire; and Necrorama!. You can find an explanation of my arbitrary labels on the first list entry. I’ve focused on core game lines or supplements offering a significant shift or change to the setting. So if one module offers some steampunk bits, I’ve left it off the list. I welcome discussions and suggestions as I work through these lists. I've arranged the items chronologically and then alphabetically within the year of publication. I break the time periods down arbitrarily, trying to keep 20 items or less per list.

(2007, Steampunk-esque) An interesting idea which brings clockwork and steamtech to a to the forefront of classic D&D setting, Blackmoor. I recall some ideas about gadgets existed originally in that setting. From the table of contents, the supplement appears to be about one-third background and 2/3rd new mechanics and rules for using gadgetech in a Blackmoor campaign. That includes the usual d20 suspects: feats, spells, and prestige classes. There's a system for player-driven investions, a concept which sounds appealing but will probably require careful GM management. Like most of the line from Zeitgeist, a pdf version of this can be found cheaply on RPGNow.

(2007, Victoriana) While this game can be played in various settings (from an earlier period up through the Pulp 1930's) it definitely has a Victorian Drawing Room vibe to it. This is a collaborative storytelling RPG in which a player spins a tale about a particular expedition, with the other players adding on or questioning that story. There are dice mechanics, but generally the game plays out goofing with the narrative. The tales involve the characters exploring fantastical places and exploring strange corners of the earth- allowing the setting to range from Verne to Haggard and everything in between. It reminds me more than a little of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. There's little setting or background. Instead the rules offer another way to play out classic tales and adventures in the genre.

(2007, Steampunk-esque) A German rpg which seems to translate as "Elyrium - Heritage of the Titans." It seems to take place in a fantasy world with heavy steam-tech elements. Think of it as Dungeons & Dragons with black-powered and steampunk gadgets. The key element of the setting beyond this is a secret war between forces of light and darkness. If your curious about other attempts at wild world-building and know German, it might be interesting to check out.

(2007, Victoriana) A Spanish rpg blending alt history with exploration of fairy tales. I don't think I can top the summary offer by the author, "Fables: exploits of the Storytellers Society. Are fables just fables, or views of a greater reality? Could it be that anything narrated in the stories of old hid a terrible and marvelous truth, at the same time? Do you want to believe, or will you ignore the events you've witnessed?

Fairy tales beings, legendary creatures and magic objects are amongst us. And you look for them purposefully. The Storytellers Society needs ladies and gentlemen of unusual talents to help them face that part of reality the common man doesn't dare to glimpse. When the gaslight goes out, who looks at you from the shadows...? Fables is a roleplaying game for two or more players which recreates the adventures of the Storytellers Society, daring investigators and wise studious of the unreal and the mythical, mainly ignored by Humanity but transmitted through folklore as archaic superstitions or children stories.

Working with secrecy behind their masquerade as an editorial of fairy tales and folklore, the agents of the Society investigate in the corners of the mortal world all kind of strange events looking for traces of supernatural activity, to learn and mediate if possible. Or to fight fire with fire, if there is not alternative. Set in the 19th century, Fables places the players between the dirty grey of the real world and the blinding shine of the unreal originality of creatures and environments characteristic of the fairy tales. But unlike most fairy tales, there isn't always a happy end. Based on the Fudge system."

(2007, Post-Victoriana) Technically this falls outside of the classic Victoriana period. AKA Fellowship of the White Star, this d20 setting offers a supernatural investigation campaign frame. The game covers the period from 1905 to 1914. That's an interesting coda to the Victorian era- covering a period often ignored in gaming. This is a slightly alt-history setting, with secret horrors behind the veil of everyday life. This is a striking labor of love clearly for the publishers- with an ongoing set of campaign adventures which update and move the story forward. That seems to be continuing, with the company now up to 1909. You can check out the website here. MJ Harnish has a review of the core book here- Review: Fellowship of the White Star - Legacy of the Rose.

(2007, Pre-Victoriana) Here's another case where I break rules- two at once with this one. It is a free pdf game, and one which covers the pre-Victorian period. But the material and idea's a compelling one- essentially a framework to play out Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. But the bibliography cites a number of Victorian sources as well. I think you can read this as a set rules for that era as well. Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies) Magicians living and encountering the strange in their daily lives. The key conceit of the material is that magic is risky and dangerous. I wonder if one could mash this up with Ars Magica a little- with magic much more unpredictable and dangerous, yet harnessed by a set of people certain in their own skill and superiority.

(2007, Steampunk-esque) Another Japanese tabletop rpg with steampunk elements. From Wikipedia, "Tenra War is a Japanese mixed-genre tabletop role-playing game designed by Jun'ichi Inoue and FarEast Amusement Research. It was released in April 2007. It is a triple crossover product, based on an oriental science fantasy RPG Tenra Bansho, steampunk western RPG Terra the Gunslinger, and post-apocalypse mecha RPG Angel Gear. All three of the original games were designed by Jun'ichi Inoue." So is that more like Rifts or like crossover videogames (Cross Edge or Project X Zone)? I like the concept of a mash up of popular rpg franchises- imagine the Vampire, Pathfinder, and Apocalypse World game.

(2007, Steampunk-esque/Victoriana) I picked up Unhallowed Metropolis on the strength of the packaging and some word of mouth. I expected a Victorian-era game with some dystopian elements- perhaps a supernatural threat (Zombies vs Gentlemen?). What those who recommended the game to me hadn't mentioned was the Neo-Victorian setting- with the game actually set in 2100. As with Etherscope, the game presents a world which has somehow stuck with the look and feel of the era decade later. The game wants to have the look of steampunk combined with horror and some science-fiction elements. However I'm not entirely convinced those add much to the setting- or at the very least they could have easily been done with a less outrageous gap in time. But I know that's a personal reaction and quirk.

An undead outbreak at the beginning of the 20th Century threw the world into disarray. Two hundred years later, cities remain as the refuges for a society which has built itself out of old pieces, weird tech, and occult practices. The feel's one of decay and death, and it reminds me most of a/state, though done with less surrealism and weirdness. Still, Unhallowed Metropolis focuses on atmosphere over coherence. It reminds me a little of Dark City, a cool-looking film that had me going s'wha? throughout. Unhallowed metropolis has seen a resurgence in recent years- with the property now in the hands of Atomic Overmind Press. A new supplement, Unhallowed Necropolis, greatly expands the supernatural options for the game.

(2008, Steampunk) Subtitled "Amazing Machines and their Construction." Described as a steampunk sourcebook for True20, this mostly focuses on the technological side of things. Not that that's a bad thing. It offers interesting systems and ideas for areas the core True20 rules treats only lightly- vehicles, technology, and devices. That's the kind of thing that often made my head simple in earlier "stuff" construction sourcebooks for generic systems (like GURPS GURPS Vehicles (First Edition) or GURPS Mecha). This offers lighter options. It is a pretty small volume, only 48 pages, but what's there is densely packed in. The pdf's priced at $12 on RPGNOw which seems a little high. I'm fond of simple systems to handle these kinds of concepts, so I'm more sympathetic towards it. By its nature True20 doesn't allow too much over-elaboration (well, except perhaps for the True20 Expert's Handbook...)

(2008, Victorian) A game which took a long time to actually see print. The demo pack for it appeared four years before this saw print. Ghosts of Albion uses Cinematic Unisystem to present a Victorian supernatural investigation campaign, based on the IP created by Amber Benson and Christopher Golden. (I use the term IP very particularly). The slightly out-of-date wikipedia page has more details. Players can play normal humans or supernatural beings. This is a classic core book-  complete rules, setting material, running a game, etc. I wouldn't recommend it as a sourcebook for the period; other games provide richer material. However, if you're looking for a fast and complete Victorian game with supernatural elements, Ghosts of Albion works.

(2008, Steampunk) Another interesting German steampunk rpg. The publisher's blurb (as translated by Google) reads, "In a world where everything counts etiquette and powerful steam technology has become indispensable in all areas of life, the Maata wander through the shadows: The Soulless. In search of her lost soul they have to endure terrible danger, but the reward is worth the effort. Take back your soul. Are you completely. Explore the world Kuriph-Aleph as a person or a member of four unique races! Set out on a seven ways to regain their soul and use their bizarre supernatural abilities! Experience rousing battles with the tactical PAI system, both on the battlefield and in the social theater!"

Though hard to tell from that, this game is horror. The PCs have their souls splintered which allows them to see behind the veil. The setting itself seems to be a shattered science-fantasy world inspired by Victoriana. It echoes the "New Weird" steampunk of Mieville.

(2008, Steampunk-esque) A strikingly pragmatic d20 sourcebook. Steamworks presents a fully developed set of systems to drop technology into a fantasy campaign. In some ways, it treats technology as a form of magic- though it  offers some spells for existing classes. It has two new core classes- Inventor and Technologist. I'm still not certain what really distinguishes one from the other. The book has new skills, feats, and prestige classes, but bulk deals with construction rules and example devices. The rules here are detailed and focuses on system mechanics. d20 gamers will find decent material, but gamers from other systems may not find this as useful.

(2008, Steampunk-esque) This setting is at the fringes of steampunk, but it certainly borrows a few design elements. That comes by way of Final Fantasy rather than Victoriana. The world's shattered, with deadly magical radiation permeating the skies. The lands remain as floating islands and travel between them utilizes sky-ships and magical vessels. The material's pretty brutal and dark when you look closely. Some of the racial options and world-building here is clever and novel (their version of the Elves and the created subject races particularly offers great concepts). To me, the steampunk comes from the look and concepts. Gadgets and gear have that mixed fantasy and tech look to them. As with many Savage Worlds setting books, Sundered Skies offers a complete campaign arc story. This has been supplemented by a couple of products including Sundered Skies Companion, Sundered Skies: Compendium 1, and Sundered Skies: Compendium 2.

(2008, Steampunk-esque) Technically this should have appeared on an earlier list for the first edition. But author clash bowley was nice enough to send me a pdf of this revised edition of Sweet Chariot. Subtitled "A World of Steam and Sparks", this offers a more classic sci-fi take. Chariot's one world among a the colonized star system of Gloria. A combination of cultural manipulation and limited technologies result in a patchwork civilization echoing the 19th Century. As opposed to other anachronistic games, Sweet Chariot has some logic for why the world looks as it does. That throwback society mixes with aliens, advanced steamtech, and the wild nature of the planet itself.

While that premise is interesting, it takes some time to get a picture of what the Sweet Chariot's about. The game builds in a great deal of backstory- there's the sense of campaign notes assembled. It reads more like a novel than a campaign frame. You have to make your way through a lot of material which will be irrelevant to play to get to what's going on. That is bowley's style- and one he's spoken about as a conscious approach. My sense, and I'm probably badly paraphrasing him here, is that he wants to put out this dense material for the players/GM and let them carve the game they want from that. That can be offputting for those expecting a more conventional game design and presentation.